Wyoming Pushes Workplace Safety With New Hire

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead announced Wednesday the state is hiring a veteran public health official from New Mexico to continue the push to reduce Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate.

Dr. C. Mack Sewell, who has served as New Mexico’s state epidemiologist since 1989, will start work in Wyoming in early July.

Sewell, 63, follows Dr. Timothy Ryan, who resigned last winter after submitting a scathing report to Mead. Ryan concluded Wyoming employers consistently fail to enforce safety rules while telling their employees to just “get the job done.”

The overall workplace death rate in Wyoming was more than three and a half times the national average in 2010. It has ranked worst in the nation five of the past 10 years. Ryan’s report singled out Wyoming’s oil and gas industry, which produces a hefty portion of the state’s revenues.

Ryan’s yearlong review of Wyoming records found that safety rules were commonly ignored in the 62 fatalities in Wyoming’s petroleum industry from 2001-2008. He wrote that objects struck or crushed 16 of 32 workers killed on drilling rigs while 17 of the 25 oil and gas workers killed in vehicle accidents weren’t wearing seat belts.

The Wyoming Legislature, meanwhile, has resisted calls to increase fines for safety violations. The state this year beefed up the ranks of inspectors available to perform voluntary safety evaluations at industry’s request.

Joan Evans, head of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, joined Mead at a press conference in Cheyenne on Wednesday to announce Sewell’s hiring. She said members of the state’s Work Force Fatality Task Force, including representatives from trucking, contracting and labor organizations, participated in the interview process that led to Sewell’s hiring.

Mead said he expects Sewell to continue Ryan’s work. He said Ryan’s work showed the state needs to continue monitoring information about accidents.

Mead said Ryan’s work also showed the difficulty of compiling information about workplace safety. “We need to keep that information up to speed because we want to be reactive to what’s actually going on,” he said.

“In my view, it’s appropriate to have this as a long-term position that continues to look at the data sees where we’re lacking, so we can address that both with training and enforcement as quickly as possible,” Mead said of the epidemiologist position.

Sewell said Wednesday he’s excited about the opportunity to work in Wyoming. He said he and his wife have family in northern Colorado and had been looking for a chance to relocate. Renny MacKay, spokesman for Mead, said Sewell will be paid $110,000 a year.

Sewell said he will be looking at records of Wyoming workplace deaths and injuries. “I also gather that I will be assisting the Department of Workforce Services, and their director and staff, and I assume the governor’s office, in coming up with strategies in trying to deal with this,” he said.

Sewell said he has experience working with the legislative process in New Mexico. He said he hopes his background in public health and epidemiology, combined with experience working with different groups of people, will help come up with a policy to help Wyoming deal with the workplace safety issue.

New Mexico has cracked down on drunken driving in recent years, Sewell said. He said both New Mexico and Wyoming see high levels of motor vehicle fatalities because of the open spaces and the speeds people drive.

“I was attracted because I really got the sense that people really want to do something about this, including the executive and legislative,” Sewell said of Wyoming.

Sewell said he understands that Mead wants to try to get industry to improve workplace safety voluntarily. “Depending on how that worked, if it didn’t succeed like they wanted it to, then they might have to take a more punitive approach,” he said.