Wyoming Workplace Safety Task Force to Meet

April 28, 2009

A workplace safety task force that’s examining why Wyoming has one of the highest worker fatality rates in the country plans to meet in Cheyenne this week.

The state’s oil and natural gas industries are a particular concern. Three workers died in those industries in the first month of this year.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal announced the formation of the workplace safety task force at the end of this year’s legislative session.

Former District Judge Gary Hartman, policy adviser to the governor, is heading up the safety task force.

“We’re still having some accidents, and we need to find out why,” Hartman said. “We’re going to look into what we need to do to make the workplace a safer place.”

The group held a preliminary meeting in March and will meet again on today in Cheyenne. Regulators from Alaska are expected to speak about their recent efforts to improve workplace safety in that state.

Wyoming lawmakers last year looked at the state’s workers compensation program. The program has been criticized for paying low death- and permanent disability benefits. The state recently has made some changes in cost-of-living adjustments.

The focus now is on how to prevent workers from getting hurt in the first place.

“We were very gratified for it. We think this is good place for it,” Rep. Jack Landon Jr., R-Sheridan, said of the task force. He co-chaired the Joint Labor and Health Interim Committee last year.

Under the state’s workers’ comp system, employers who pay premiums into the state’s workers’ compensation fund are immune from worker lawsuits. Most workers’ comp programs around the country operate the same way.

However, supervisors and co-employees found to have willfully placed workers in harm’s way are not currently immune from suit in Wyoming. The Wyoming Mining Association and similar industry groups want to give supervisors and co-employees the same immunity as employers.

A proposal to extend immunity to supervisor and co-employees failed in the Legislature this year.

Meanwhile, some labor groups want to hold oil and gas operators liable for negligence that results in injured or killed workers, regardless who employed them.

Oil and gas operators typically only pay into the state’s workers’ compensation program for their own direct employees. They do not typically make payments for contractor employees who work on their job sites, such as drillers, roustabouts and mud haulers.

The task force also intends to address the issue that most work-related fatalities in Wyoming happen on its roadways.

“Death and injuries on job sites have such a huge impact on a company and on an industry, let alone on a family,” said Jonathan Downing, executive vice president of the Wyoming Contractors’ Association and a member of the task force. “The end goal is to ensure we have a safe workplace in Wyoming.”

Downing said no topics are off-limits as the task force considers what to do to improve work place safety.

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