One of the few surprises of the session – and an action that may have repercussion sat the federal and state level – was the defeat Tuesday of a bill that would have dramatically increased penalties against employers when workers are injured or killed due to willful violation of workplace safety laws.
The bill (HB 93), which passed the House with a near-unanimous vote, would have raised the amount of civil penalties against employers when a worker dies to workplace violations from $70,000 to $250,000. Civil penalties per violation where no death occurred could have gone up from a low of $5,000-70,000 currently to as high as $120,000. The bill made it to third reading in the Senate and died on a 15-15 vote.
The bill was drafted in response to Wyoming’s high rate of death and injury in the workplace, highlighted in recent years by accidents on oil and gas drilling projects. In 2007, the state led the nation in worker deaths, with 17 deaths per 100,000 workers, many involving transportation accidents. The injury rate improved in 2008, but sponsor Rep. Roy Cohee (R-Casper), who owns a trucking firm, said the bill would remind even small employers that “if you’re going to employ people in this state…you do owe some responsibility for a safe workplace.”
Judge Gary Hartman, who covers workplace safety issues for Gov. Dave Freudenthal, said the failure to act at the state level could lead to harsher penalties at the floor level set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Paul Ulrich, representing Encana Oil and Gas, voiced support for the bill, telling the Associated Press, “We have an embarrassing fatality rate, and we need to do more, much more.” But Sen. Kathryn Sessions, D-Cheyenne, claimed that major players in the energy industry – even those who had publicly endorsed the bill– were lobbying against it behind the scenes.
Interviews with senators both for and against the bill suggest the big industry players were not that active –but it’s the smaller operators, often subcontractors, who the bill was actually aimed at. “It’s ‘Bob’s Meth Oil and Gas’,” said one House member, who gets a pass on identification for a casual remark in the hallway.
Opponent Sen. Eli Bebout(R-Riverton) said the bill would harm small businesses, and Sen. Charlie Scott(R-Casper) said that historically the federal OSHA had crippled businesses with “punitive” fines. Scott noted that most of the injuries were incurred while driving, and thought it was more suitable to increase fines for failing to use a seatbelt. That bill (SF 64) was still alive.
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The governor signed into law today a bill that creates an official “Code of Wyoming” based on the “Code of the West” promulgated by author James Owen – a career investment guy from California who apparently wrote up his “cowboy ethic” idea as a guide for his Wall Street friends.
Despite this iffy pedigree, the legislature embraced Owen’s 10 Commandment code, which begins with “Live Each Day with Courage”, gallops through “Ride for the Brand,” and ends with “Know Where to Draw the Line.”
After considerable speechifying at the governor’s bill signing – which echoed considerably more speechifying on the House floor – Rep. Pat Childers (R-Cody),an ardent supporter, waved a card with the “Code of the West” in my face and pointed to dictum #8: “Talk Less and Say More.”
Yes indeed. Sponsor Rep. Lisa Shepperson (R-Casper) may have been the only one to take that to heart. Given the microphone at the bill signing, she said only: “I’ll just say ditto. And we’ve all talked about the cowboys, but don’t forget the cowgirls.”