By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Wyoming has consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous states for workers. And in 2017, Wyoming once again more than doubled the national average for workplace fatalities.
According to the Wyoming Department of Workplace Services, the state saw a fatality rate of 7.7 workers per 100,000 full-time-equivalent employees in 2017. That’s the third highest in the country and significantly higher than the national rate of 3.5 per 100,000. Only Alaska and North Dakota ranked higher last year.
Last year’s numbers weren’t an anomaly for Wyoming. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, between 2008 and 2016, the state averaged 30 deaths per year for a rate of 11.1 deaths per 100,000 full-time employees. That is more than three times higher than the national average over the same time period.
What causes the high rates?
According to the state data, 20 people died on the job in 2017. That was a drop from 27 deaths in 2016, due in large part to no fatalities in the manufacturing and oil and gas industries.
Meredith Towle, an occupational epidemiologist with Wyoming, said there was no single factor in Wyoming’s high death rate when compared to the rest of the country. But when digging into the numbers, there’s a pattern of actions that leads to many of the fatalities.
“We do see some of the same predictable factors in these workplace fatalities,” said Towle, who prepared the study. “When you look at those fatalities and investigate the data, you see (issues) dealing with a lack of training, a lack of a commitment to workplace safety.”
Major contributors to on-the-job deaths have been motor vehicle crashes. Wyoming has seen 46 percent of all its workplace deaths between 2012 and 2017 come from crashes on the road, pedestrians hit while working by the roadside or someone being struck while on a worksite.
Towle said a significant contributor to the crash deaths was someone not using a seatbelt while in a vehicle.
There are easy steps an employer and employee can take to prevent an accident from occurring, Towle said. It all comes down to, in large part, creating a culture of safety at a job site. That could be creating a seatbelt rule for work, or making sure the proper equipment is being used while an employee is climbing an apparatus.
“There are solutions that I think could make a dent in this number and this trend,” Towle said. “It’s more complicated than any one person’s decision (not to be safe).”
There have been significant efforts to improve safety across the state, especially in the transportation industry. The Wyoming Transportation Safety Coalition, formed by Gov. Matt Mead in 2013, has helped significantly to improve safety for those who work in the transportation field, said Sheila Foertsch, managing director of the Wyoming Trucking Association.
A major issue in fatalities in the industry is out-of-state drivers who travel across the state as part of their work. A lack of understanding of the extreme weather and terrain drivers may be subject to can lead to fatal mistakes while on the road. Between 2012 and 2017, 69 percent of those killed in an accident were out-of-state residents.
Foertsch said as part of the work of the state coalition, ports of entry now have videos and other information for drivers to let them know what to expect while driving through the state.
“We’ve seen a lot of improvements already. And we’re trying to do a better job of reaching out to other state (trucking) associations on Wyoming’s roads,” Foertsch said.
Along with educational efforts, Foertsch said every member of her group has seatbelt requirements for its employees.
What else can be done?
Wyoming is at somewhat of a disadvantage when it comes to workplace fatalities in part because there are such a high percentage of high-risk jobs in the state. Manufacturing, oil and gas extraction, transportation and agricultural industries are at higher risk for injuries and death than other employment sectors. But that doesn’t doom Wyoming to remain at the bottom of the nation when it comes to worker safety.
There were several recommendations in the state’s study on how to improve safety. One was to encourage employers to develop a health and safety program modeled after Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s recommendations, a measure some states require of its employers. And in Wyoming, business owners are actually rewarded for developing those plans with a drop in their workers compensation insurance premiums.
Another recommendation was the promotion of Stop Work Authority program, which encourages and empowers employees in high-risk professions to stop work to address a serious safety issue. Towle said that program has used in the oil and gas industry to a high degree of effectiveness.
In many cases, the solutions don’t require a financial investment but instead an investment of time to find out how to improve safety.
“I think we have an economy in this state that has a lot of small employers. So I can empathize with an employer just trying to make ends meet,” Towle said. “They may not have time to go out and find the solutions. Certainly a broad-based campaign to help raise awareness of free resources and tools available could certainly have a benefit.”
A major step in reducing workplace deaths could also help decrease overall fatalities in the state. Towle said the passage of a primary seatbelt law has been shown to decrease fatalities on the road. That law allows law enforcement to stop and ticket a driver if they or their passenger isn’t wearing a seatbelt.
“We know we’ve made progress, but we still have work to do,” Towle said.