With added OSHA personnel, more companies get safety consultations

Jun 21, 2013

Wyoming consistently has one of the highest rates of workplace fatalities in the country. Many of these are in the energy industry, though not all. Last year, the state legislature decided to tackle the problem by hiring more safety consultants for Wyoming’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA. Most agree that the change has been positive, but some say more still needs to be done, in order to reduce workplace injuries and deaths. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: Safety consultations work like this: A company voluntarily invites OSHA to their workplace, and OSHA consultants go through and check whether everything meets safety regulations. If they find a problem, they work with the company to deal with it. But they don’t issue violations or fines.

St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson has had several consultations over the past decade, and Facilities Director Jim Johnston says they’ve been helpful.

JIM JOHNSTON: We looked at how we store our chemicals. … We looked at some of our programs such as what kind of needles are you using? What kind of scalpels are you using? Do you have safety devices on those?

BELDEN: Johnston says OSHA has sometimes found minor problems. For example, they wanted documentation that the hospital was regularly checking equipment, and they wanted assurances that certain equipment is completely shut down when maintenance is done. Johnston says these were quick fixes, and he’s grateful for the help the consultants provided.

JOHNSTON: Our employees are safer; our patients are safer; our productivity increases because we have a safe environment; and our accident rates declined … over the past three years.

BELDEN: OSHA says those kinds of results are common after their consultants visit a site. Karin Schubert has been a safety consultant for more than a decade. She says when companies invite OSHA to do a consultation, they tend to be cooperative about fixing safety problems.

KARIN SCHUBERT: We work any disagreements out … if there are any. In my 13 years, I haven’t had any.

BELDEN: Schubert says the consultations are a win-win: Safety problems get fixed, and companies avoid fines that could come with serious accidents. But in the past, Wyoming had only six OSHA consultants, which meant that if a company requested a safety consultation, it could take six months before OSHA showed up. That’s why the legislature voted to more than double the number of consultants last year. Wyoming OSHA Administrator John Ysebaert says it’s been a big improvement.

JOHN YSEBAERT: In 2011, they had done a total number of 109 consultations. In just the seven months that we analyzed in 2012, they had done over 240. So the volume of consultations has increased dramatically, which is exactly what we want.

BELDEN: Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate has dropped slightly in the past two years. But Ysebaert says it always fluctuates, and it’s too soon to tell whether this is related to the increase in safety consultations.

Regardless, some say more needs to be done. Dan Neal with the Equality State Policy Center says in addition to more consultations, the state needs to do more on the enforcement side. He wants stricter penalties for companies that violate workplace safety rules.

DAN NEAL: Right now the fines are at a level that for some of these businesses, it appears to us that they might consider the fines that they get after an injury or fatality as the cost of doing business.

BELDEN: Neal says preventing workplace accidents is kind of like preventing drunk driving: if you don’t enforce the laws strictly enough, people won’t follow them.

NEAL: When people started seeing that DUI laws were being enforced aggressively, and people realized that, ‘Oh this is going to cost me a lot of money,’ that’s when I think we started seeing a real effort by people not to do this.

BELDEN: Neal says he also thinks OSHA needs more compliance inspectors. Those are the people who issue penalties for violations. Currently, the state only has nine inspectors, and they only visit workplaces after there’s been a major accident, or a complaint.

Representative Mary Throne, a Democrat from Cheyenne, agrees that tougher penalties are in order.

MARY THRONE: Obviously you have to have carrots and sticks in the regulatory world.

BELDEN: Last year, Throne pushed for legislation that would have increased penalties for safety violations. But the bill failed, and Throne says she doesn’t think lawmakers are becoming any more receptive to the idea.

Still, Workforce Services Director Joan Evans says hiring additional consultants was the right way to start tackling the problem.

JOAN EVANS: We need to be able to provide the resources for employers to get the help they need before we come in with a heavy hand and issue citations for things that folks did not even understand.

BELDEN: In addition the consultations that OSHA offers, the Department of Workforce Services is hosting a workplace safety summit in Rock Springs next week. The event will include trainings on a variety of safety practices, as well as sessions on how best to recognize and deal with risks in the workplace. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.