Regulation has been a hot-button topic when it comes to worker safety in Wyoming over the last few years. Despite pressure from worker advocacy groups, legislators have been reluctant to write new laws tackling workplace injuries and fatalities, instead opting for an incentives-based approach.
Dr. Mack Sewell is the state’s occupational epidemiologist. He’s been on the job for about a year and a half, and he recently spoke with Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce about his latest report on workplace accidents, released in November, and how the state should move forward.
STEPHANIE JOYCE: Thanks for speaking with me Dr. Sewell. So, how can knowing the statistics help improve worker safety?
MACK SEWELL: What I don’t have in this report, but what I am providing industry… interested industry sectors when we meet is a breakdown of the number of hospitalizations, the number of disability days, the cost… Then we break it down by the cause of loss, whether they were burned, or whether they had a fall, slip or trip. So trying to give industry some specific information.
JOYCE: The legislature has been reluctant to pass new regulations related to workplace safety. Maybe you can elaborate a little bit on how this data that you’re compiling is useful without new regulation.
SEWELL: I think it helps industries target the kinds of circumstances that may lead to injuries. The legislature and the governor have both done a couple of things. One is, the legislature added seven new positions to the OSHA staff -- that’s really a significant increase in their capacity. And of course, the other thing they’ve done is create a workplace safety fund, and they’ve also created an incentive program for worker’s compensation, for those employers that have a safety program.
JOYCE: A lot of people have broken that down as the legislature and the governor opting for a carrot approach as opposed to a stick. Which one do you feel is more effective?
SEWELL: Well, again, that’s something the legislature and the governor have to deal with. OSHA has the ability already to provide the stick. I mean they have the authority to levy penalties… I’m sure you saw the news where Sinclair was just hit with a substantial penalty. I think there’s more than one way to motivate human behavior, and I think the legislature and the governor have got to decide the best approach for that.
JOYCE: And in your role as the occupational epidemiologist, how do you measure the efficacy of those various approaches?
SEWELL: Well, my job is to look at the data and to provide data runs to various groups including the governor and the citizens of Wyoming. I do see some encouraging trends, I do think it’s going to take time though.
JOYCE: You mentioned the program that hired seven new workplace safety consultants, with the idea being that companies can reach out for voluntary inspections rather than waiting to be fined after an accident… are companies actually using that program?
SEWELL: Yes they are, employers have… the one advantage to a voluntary program is that if an employer says, well it’s hey it’s just a matter of time before my number comes up, they can reach out to OSHA and get a review without being penalized. So I think that’s a successful model.
JOYCE: So how are you going about measuring the efficacy of that program?
SEWELL: Well, I’m not sure that I’m actually measuring the efficacy of that… You might want to talk with OSHA directly about that. But I think it just makes sense that there was a substantial increase in the number of OSHA staff that were dedicated towards inspection with these additional staff. And I think that was really remarkable that the legislature did that.
JOYCE: So that’s not an area that you’re focused on at all -- whether the solutions that are being implemented are actually working?
SEWELL: What I see happening is that there are a bunch of solutions being tried all at once. We’re not trying to set up a rigorous scientific experiment, we’re trying to just get some changes…For example, the Transportation Coalition, we know that there are some hazardous highway segments, and we’re working on specific highway segments with the Transportation Department at the table, trying to make changes in either highway design or signage. The other thing is that industry is at the table, so we’re trying to get ahead of the curve so the Transportation Department can make changes for access if they know that an industry is going to get busy in a certain area. For example, there’s a lot of new activity up around Douglas. And it’s a very complex process.
JOYCE: So, you’re saying there’s a lot of approaches being tried out, but there’s no way of measuring how successful they are?
SEWELL: I think it’s a very complex question that you ask… We know, for example, that highway fatalities are down for ‘13. And I haven’t seen the latest number, but we know they’re way down. And the question is, well, why is that? There are probably a number of things that are contributing to that. I don’t just want to say that it’s one thing… And I need to work with the various other groups so that we can try to make sense of some of this.
JOYCE: And I guess that leads me to the question: what, for you, is the biggest area that needs to be focused on here in Wyoming when it comes to workplace safety?
SEWELL: I would say transportation, followed by construction. And then I think there are a number of other industries that would fall right behind that… oil and gas would be there. You know, if you look at the worker’s comp data, and again, some industries may not have a lot of fatalities but they have a lot of injuries. Healthcare is an example… accommodation and food services is another area. So I think this department, we’re trying to find way to reach out to these various organizations as we have time and the ability to pull these groups together.
JOYCE: And from what you’ve seen so far, do you think we’re making progress in the right direction?
SEWELL: One of the things that motivated me about taking the job in the first place is that I got the sense that a lot of people really do want to make some changes. And I do see some encouraging signs in terms of the drop in the number of deaths, and the drop in the number of worker’s comp claims. We think that one death is too many, and so that’s why we’re pursuing multiple different strategies.
JOYCE: Alright, Dr. Sewell, thank you so much for your time.