- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming employers would face higher penalties for workplace safety violations under a bill that cleared a legislative committee hearing Wednesday.

Wyoming currently doesn’t have a separate penalty for workplace fatalities and caps the fine for serious violations at $7,000, whether they result in a fatality or not. The state long has been among the worst in the country in terms of the rate of worker fatalities.

The bill the committee approved Wednesday would increase penalties up to $12,000 for serious violations.

The bill also specifies that an employer who “willfully and knowingly” commits violations that materially contribute to the death of a worker would face a fine. The bill would set the fine at up to $50,000 for companies that employ fewer than 250 people and up to $250,000 for larger companies.

The AFL-CIO, which tracks workplace deaths, issued a report last summer stating Wyoming was second only to North Dakota, based on 2012 figures. The numbers show Wyoming had 12.2 fatalities per 100,000 workers, while North Dakota had 17.7.

The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services reported in September that the number of workplace fatalities fell from 35 in 2012 to 26 in 2013 - a 25-percent decline. The agency reported that on average, from 1992-2013, there were 34 occupational fatalities each year

“As all of you know, we don’t exactly have a stellar workplace safety record, when you look at the statistics in Wyoming,” bill supporter Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, told the committee on Wednesday.

Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, suggested amending the bill to take out the specification that the fines for fatalities would apply only if the employer “willfully and knowingly” committed the violation. He said that language, adopted by an interim legislative committee last year, gutted the bill because that standard would rarely if ever be met.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, spoke against Scott’s proposal, saying that removing the “willfully and knowingly” language would likely kill the bill.

Mark Aronowitz, a Jackson lawyer with the public interest law firm Lawyers and Advocates for Wyoming, told the committee that he’s researched workplace safety violations issued by the state.

“I think it’s a positive bill, but it may not have a huge effect on Wyoming businesses and Wyoming employers,” Aronowitz said. Over the past 10 years, he said Workforce Services has issued 34 willful and knowing citations but none connected to a fatality.

However, Aronowitz said the bill has value in that it would send a message to the families of workers who die on the job that the state does take the most serious cases seriously.

Joan Evans, director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, said the agency has no mechanism to force businesses to pay fines that are imposed. She said it has imposed $117,000 in fines over the past three years which have not been paid.

Committee members said they intend to look into the issue and may amend the bill to address the issue of collecting fines.

Joshua Carnahan, lobbyist for the Wyoming Construction Coalition, urged the committee to extend the proposed higher fines to cover public entities. He said it sends the wrong message when the single largest employer in the state is exempt from fines.

The committee amended the bill to specify that public entities would be subject to fines. If public entities are fined, they would make payments to a public school fund. The bill now goes to the full Senate.

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