On Safety

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Who’s responsible?

December 26, 2014

When a worker dies on the job, does the fault lie with the employer or the government’s oversight agency? A Wyoming newspaper and the state’s OSHA program recently debated the question in the editorial pages.

The Casper Star-Tribune’s editorial board published an op-ed on Dec. 5 lambasting Wyoming OSHA for having a “zero-inspection plan.” The criticism stems from a January 2014 death of a worker at a sugar cooperative’s plant in Lovell, WY.

The facility had never been inspected by Wyoming OSHA, a fact the editorial board implied had contributed to the conditions that led to the death. “We still struggle to understand how an industrial facility doesn't get an inspection,” the editorial said. “It's not an accountant’s office. The plant is a place with equipment that can drown, maim and kill workers.”

In response to the editorial, Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Director Joan Evans wrote an op-ed that was published in the Star-Tribune on Dec. 21. (The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services oversees the state’s OSHA program.)

“Realistically, just as there is not a highway patrolman available to pull over every vehicle on the road, there is not an OSHA compliance officer available to perform a compliance check on every Wyoming business,” Evans said.

According to a report from the AFL-CIO, it would take 101 years to inspect every jobsite in Wyoming just once.

Evans outlined how Wyoming OSHA prioritizes which facilities to inspect. Worksites in which fatalities or multiple injuries occur are required by federal law to be inspected, as are employee reports of imminent danger.

Outside these cases, Wyoming OSHA does what virtually every enforcement agency does when deciding how to prioritize: It looks at the data. Facilities with high injury rates are targeted.

The Lovell facility had a “significantly” lower-than-average injury rate prior to last year’s workplace death, so it was not included on a list to be inspected. As both the Star-Tribune and Evans point out, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe workplace.

But the threat of an OSHA inspection to help drive compliance needs to be real – not simply a once-in-a-century occurrence. Wyoming has nine compliance inspectors and seven consultants on staff.

If the Star-Tribune or anyone else wants the agency knocking on more workplace doors, OSHA is going to need more funding to hire more staff. Otherwise, the math just doesn’t work.

The opinions expressed in "On Safety" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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