On April 27th, several dozen workers, citizens, advocates, clergy members and public officials gathered in Casper to observe Workers Memorial Day. The event was part of a national effort to fulfill the promise of a safe workplace for all and pay tribute to those who lost their lives while working.
The statistics are sobering. Between 1992 and 2009 there were 622 workplace fatalities in Wyoming, an average of one death every ten days.
Workers Memorial Day presents an opportunity to step back from statistics, data, fatality rates and epidemiological studies in order to honor those who have perished and listen to the stories of their survivors. We heard one of those stories Friday.
On Feb. 19, 2007, C.J. Moss was electrocuted while working on a drilling rig. He was 26 years old. C.J. was survived by his wife, Natalie Moss, and their four-year-old son. Mrs. Moss spoke to the group about the impact C.J.’s death had on their family, including how she explained the tragedy to her son.
The need to improve our State’s workplace safety record while transforming Wyoming’s culture of safety is no longer in dispute. The remaining issue is how best to accomplish these goals. In the recent Budget session, Gov. Matt Mead advocated for a cooperative approach – a carrot instead of a stick – and the legislature listened. In March, the legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill authorizing seven new safety consultant positions within Wyoming OSHA. The bill also appropriates $500,000 in grants enabling employers to increase and provide for effective participation in workplace safety programs. The bill passed the House of Representatives 52 to 5 and the Senate 26 to 1.
During the Workers Memorial Day commemoration, a letter from the Governor announced that the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, the State agency that houses OSHA, had already hired seven new safety consultants and one new compliance inspector.
This focus and commitment from the highest level of our State’s government constitutes real progress and represents an encouraging first step. However, to effectively change our State’s culture of safety, the stick, or more realistically, the threat of the stick should not be taken off the table. During the 2012 budget session the House of Representatives considered and rejected a bill increasing OSHA penalties for when willful and serious OSHA violations resulted in a workplace fatality. When the bill failed, a useful tool for deterring the most dangerous conduct with the most catastrophic consequence had been removed from our toolbox.
Most of us don’t know the fine or penalty for speeding or running a red light. Simply knowing that we might get caught, that our actions might negatively affect us, or that the device near the traffic light that looks like a camera might somehow result in a ticket, is often enough to alter what might otherwise be dangerous behavior. The same concept, the threat of consequences and accountability, should be applied to the workplace.
Governor Mead’s letter stated, “I am hopeful that the growing focus on safety will mean fewer casualties and safer workplaces in years to come.” We couldn’t agree more.
We look forward to a time when legislators no longer propose legislation granting immunity to employers and co-employees for acts of willful and wanton misconduct. We hope that Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate may soon be among the lowest in the nation. And finally, we pray that during future iterations of Workers Memorial Day, it becomes impossible to find speakers who have shared tragedy with their children or the rest of us.
As Mrs. Moss has said, “It seems like people die out there all the time. They’re leaving wives and children.”
“What 26-year-old should have to plan a funeral?”
Mark Aronowitz is an attorney who directs the not for profit Spence Association for Employee Rights. He helped organize the Workers Memorial Day commemoration in Casper.