Workplace fatalities decline in 2017

By Heather Richards

Casper Star-Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — The number of workplace deaths in Wyoming fell in 2017 to one of the lowest levels recorded in more than two decades. 

More than half of the Wyoming deaths, 55 percent, were from transportation incidents that include everything from a rolled ATV to a semitrailer crash, according to a report released Tuesday by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ Research and Planning Department. 

The report is a collaboration between Wyoming and a federal Bureau of Labor Statistics program that shares cross-state data. It provides a general portrait of trends in workplace fatalities. Wyoming’s state epidemiologist also puts out a report every year that includes details on each workplace death. That report has not yet been released for 2017. 

Twenty workers died on the job last year in Wyoming, according to the Research and Planning Department. It is the lowest death count in at least 25 years except for an ebb in fatalities in 2009, when 19 workers died in the state. 

Deaths fell in multiple categories last year, from violence — which includes workplace suicide and animal attacks — to the mineral industries. Just four workers died in mining and extraction. Six deaths occurred in trade, transportation and utilities, according to the report.

“It’s good to see that decrease; however, it’s import to keep that in context,” said David Bullard, senior economist for Research and Planning. “These numbers go up and down. In a lot of ways it’s similar to what we’ve seen in the past.” 

Wyoming has often ranked high for worker deaths, in part due to the abundance of high-risk employment in the state, from its broad oil and gas sector to agriculture. 

Transportation that serves other industries is also a significant sector in its own right and often accounts for the greatest number of fatalities year by year, Bullard said. 

There are about 6,000 truckers that work in Wyoming, according to state records. That’s about 22 individuals for every 1,000 workers in the state. Wyoming is the fifth highest in the nation for the concentration of the workforce employed in that industry. Heavy and tractor trailer drivers in Wyoming are some of the best paid in the country, the report notes.

In a recent survey of truck drivers in Wyoming, overseen by the Department of WorkforceServices’ state epidemiologist, the majority of drivers, 70 percent, said their employers had a favorable workplace safety culture. However, 40 percent also noted that they “sometimes or often drive when fatigued or in bad weather if faced with certain scheduling pressures.” 

The trucking survey noted a number of challenges facing the industry and exacerbating some of the risks, such as a shortage of drivers and the high number of vehicular crashes — particularly with older drivers. Though crashes are down overall, the trucking industry can become pressured when economic activity rises and a shortage of drivers can drive down the quality and experience of employees, according to the Department of Workforce Services survey. 

Most of those surveyed by the department were classified as heavy truck drivers, class eight. 

Because Research and Planning’s fatality report is part of a federal program, Bullard could not release the details of individual incidents, but noted that there is a degree of random factors that contribute to the transportation sector’s high fatality rate, from mechanical failures on steep mountain roads to poor weather conditions. Some drivers may be from out of state and unprepared for a snow storm in April or October, he said. 

“Those numbers go up and down, because random things occur,” Bullard said. 

The low fatality count last year may also have to do with the size of the workforce. Though mineral industries in Wyoming have improved since an economic bust in 2015, the workforce has not rebounded. The number of workers in the state peaked in 2014, fell in 2015 and continued to shrink in 2016 and again last year. 

There are simply fewer people out there working, Bullard said.