It has been nearly 34 years since Jane Ifland’s brother, Roger, died in a workplace accident that she says should have been avoided.
But even though more than three decades have passed, the Casper resident says she is still upset about her brother’s death, as well as the workplace deaths of many other Wyoming workers each year.
“The thing is that it never goes away,” Ifland said. “It doesn’t matter how much time has passed, the pain never stops.
“It’s maddening – it’s not just frustrating – it’s maddening to think that the employer should be placed above the worker.”
Ifland was among the family members, state officials and workplace safety advocates who attended a somber event last week in the State Capitol to remember those who have been killed or injured in the workplace.
The fourth annual Wyoming Workers’ Memorial Day came as state officials announced preliminary numbers that show more than 30 died while on the job in the state last year.
That figure will be an increase from the 26 who died in 2013. And it likely again will put Wyoming at or near the top of the rankings of states with the highest worker fatalities on a per capita basis.
Gov. Matt Mead, who spoke at the Workers’ Memorial Day for the first time, said this is not acceptable.
“From personal experience, on June 21, 1996 . I got the call that my mom was killed in a workplace fatality,” he said in reference to when his mother, Mary Mead, was killed after being thrown from her horse while working cattle near the family’s ranch. “So I know when a worker dies and won’t be returning from work ever again that it’s a great tragedy for that person, for his or her family, for the community and for our state.”
Mead noted that the state is `”lowly headed in the right direction” by taking steps to curb the number of workplace deaths.
These steps include hiring extra Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors, creating a program that offers incentives to businesses if they take preventive steps and gathering better data to find out the causes of workplace incidents.
But he said more action is needed “to change the culture and mindset” of how industries approach workplace safety.
Although the governor didn’t say specifically how that could be achieved, several others offered their thoughts.
Sheridan resident Mary Jane Collins, whose son died in a construction accident in 2012, urged state leaders at the event to increase fines for workplace safety incidents that result in a death of an employee.
Collins lobbied the Legislature earlier year to pass a bill that would have created a fine of up to $250,000 for these types of cases. It passed out of committee, but it died without getting a vote in the state Senate.
“It is our mission not to put anyone out of business,” she said. “But it is to create a safe environment on a daily basis for every company that operates in Wyoming, whether they are small or large.”
Ifland, meanwhile, said she thinks a better strategy is to hire even more safety inspectors to catch mistakes or issues before a serious incident can occur.
“I think we should be spending some of the state’s money – maybe a lot of it – on prevention, rather than punishment,” she said. “I would like to see the safety inspectors that the state funds be the best jobs in the industry so instead of losing our inspectors to private business, we have private business losing inspectors to us because our jobs are the best.”
The Legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee is expected to look at some of these options, since the group plans to study workplace safety issues during the months leading up to the 2016 session.
Minority Floor Leader Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, said she is hopeful that lawmakers will focus on the wellbeing of the worker instead of the employer.
“Let’s make this discussion of workplace safety ask the right question,” she said. “We should ask about the workers, not the employers, not the workplace, but what can we do as policymakers to protect workers? Everything needs to be on the table.”
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