- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a proposal that would sharply increase penalties when employee deaths occur because of safety violations at large companies in Wyoming, which has long been among the top states for workplace deaths.

Members of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee voted 8-6 to endorse the bill. It now heads to the Legislature for consideration in the session starting next month.

Supporters including sponsor Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, said it’s critical that industry in Wyoming get the message that there are serious consequences to allowing unsafe working conditions.

“We have heard over the years from a number of families who have lost someone in a workplace accident that the penalties are offensive, that they’re outrageously low for a workplace accident,” Throne said

The AFL-CIO, which tracks workplace deaths, said in a report this summer that 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.

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.

As amended by the committee Tuesday, the bill would allow penalties of up to $12,000 for serious violations. The new penalty for violations that contribute to fatalities would be up to $50,000 for companies that employ fewer than 250 people and up to $250,000 for larger companies.

Opponents expressed concern that hiking penalties won’t result in safer working conditions given that many in Wyoming work at inherently dangerous jobs in energy production and agriculture. Rather, they warned, the prospect of stiffer fines will make employers less likely to hire inexperienced workers and actually imposing such fines would put companies out of business.

Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, said Wyoming faces a combination of dangerous work combined with low population.

“No matter what we do here, no matter how safe we try to make our jobs in Wyoming, we’re always going to be among the top three in the nation, with our low population and the type of jobs we have here in Wyoming,” Peterson said.

Committee Co-chairwoman Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, said she agreed with raising the basic penalties for violations but said she disagreed with the provisions of the bill that would fine employers extra when violations result in fatalities.

“There’s not an amount of money that satisfies that value of a life,” Harvey said.

Harvey said the idea behind the proposed extra penalties for fatalities seemed to be that the state would prevent fatalities from happening.

“They’re not going to stop,” she said.

Mary Jane Collins of Sheridan urged the committee to pass the bill. Her grandson, Brett Collins, died in a construction accident in 2012.

“I just think that the companies that operate in Wyoming need to understand that there are penalties for unsafe practices because it isn’t right to take our young lives,” Collins said during a recess in the hearing.

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