By Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile.com
The Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t investigate accidents unless there’s a fatality, or if three or more people are hospitalized in a single incident.
Wyoming employers are legally immune for their own negligence — even wanton safety violations — and cannot be sued by injured workers or their families. In the rare instance that an employer is taken to court in a civil lawsuit, it’s almost guaranteed there will be a bill introduced in the next legislative session to make sure a similar lawsuit will never be brought again, according to worker advocates.
After hearing this, and much more about Wyoming’s lackluster workplace safety laws, Ed Simmons was overcome with emotion and couldn’t remain silent.Wyoming employers are legally immune for their own negligence — even wanton safety violations — and cannot be sued by injured workers or their families. In the rare instance that an employer is taken to court in a civil lawsuit, it’s almost guaranteed there will be a bill introduced in the next legislative session to make sure a similar lawsuit will never be brought again, according to worker advocates.
“I’m upset. I don’t understand. And the legislation; I don’t get you guys,” said Simmons, whose son, Anthony Simmons, died April 10 after falling from a man camp trailer roof. “My son was 22 years old, and I loved him with everything I had. … He was on the job one month, and didn’t have the experience to be doing what he was doing.”
Simmons spoke Monday morning at the Workers Memorial Day event at the Ramada Plaza Riverside in Casper. It was sponsored by the Equality State Policy Center, Wyoming State AFL-CIO, Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, and the Spence Association for Employee Rights (SAFER).
Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River) and Rep. Don Burkhart (R-Rawlins) both spoke at the event and described how difficult it is to pass any new laws to demand more accountability for safe workplaces and to extend more rights to workers in Wyoming. Last year, Wyoming lawmakers killed a measure that would have increased OSHA’s maximum fine levels for serious violations, but they passed a bill to add seven positions at OSHA — strictly limiting the additional resources to the agency’s consultation division rather than OSHA’s enforcement efforts.
“I think OSHA does a fantastic job. However their hands are tied. They can only go as far as the legislature allows them,” said Hastert. “We need to do more. We can’t just say we have more inspectors. It’s a shame.”
Katharine Morgan lost her husband, David Morgan, in August 2012, just weeks before he was to retire.
“The following day, I returned to the location where he died. The authorities said he was crushed by a large tote tank and died alone,” said Morgan. “He was my emotional counter-balance, holder of my children, bill-payer, fixer of broken things, anchor in life, keeper of memories, and partner in life’s journey. We had scheduled a trip to the country of his ancestors as a celebration of our 45 years together. … I went alone.”
Morgan said she may join forces with worker advocates in a renewed effort to push for safer workplaces in Wyoming. Morgan and several representatives of worker advocate organizations said they plan to attend the Wyoming Safety and Workforce Summit June 25 and 26 in Rock Springs where they will discuss adding some teeth to what has been a carrot-only approach to improving Wyoming’s workplace safety performance.
“I would propose the stick is the perfect compliment to the carrot. The fear of, and respect of consequences is preferable to death and grief,” said Mark Aronowitz, staff attorney for SAFER.
SAFER, the Equality State Policy Center, AFL-CIO, Trial Lawyers and other advocates have not yet put forth an official platform, but speakers on Monday took aim at several policies, beginning with the rule blocking Wyoming OSHA from investigating accidents unless somebody is killed, or at least three people are hospitalized. Aronowitz said that if Wyoming truly wants to understand what was behind the state’s long-running worst-in-the-nation workplace fatality rate, it should direct OSHA to investigate every accident and compile the data so that job-seekers can look at a company’s safety performance. He said any burden that new regulations might place on a company is completely insignificant compared to the pain of a child who loses a parent in a workplace accident.
Riverton attorney John Vincent said he plans to recruit lobbyists and work with worker advocates to reform Wyoming’s workplace safety laws.
“If you want people to be responsible, you hold them accountable. Nobody’s accountable,” said Vincent.
Vincent said he used to represent oil and gas companies, but stopped when he began witnessing gruesome injuries and deaths of people he knew working in the oil and gas fields.
In 2009, Vincent led an effort to pass a “duty of care” bill aimed at clarifying existing Wyoming statute allowing employees to sue third-parties for their portion of proven negligence in workplace safety. The statute is most commonly applicable in the oil and gas industry where the operator of a drilling site controls many aspects of safety for contract workers. Unlike employers who enjoy immunity under Wyoming workers compensation, that third-party operator doesn’t enjoy immunity from contract workers. Yet years of case law has raised the bar so high that workers and their families now find it impossible to bring a civil suit against oil and gas operators.
Fierce opposition from industry helped squash the effort, despite the fact that any award in the workers’ favor would be applied to benefits paid by Wyoming workers compensation — recovering large sums of money for the state.
Vincent didn’t say whether duty of care would be part of his proposed workplace safety reforms.
— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has written about Wyoming’s energy industries for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer