For more than a decade, Wyoming has been among the most dangerous places in the nation for workers. Deaths peaked in the late 2000s, at the height of the state’s natural gas drilling frenzy. In response, task forces were convened and safety alliances were formed to address what was billed as a problem with Wyoming’s “culture of safety.” The number of deaths has fallen in recent years, but has the safety culture changed, or did the drilling rigs just move on?
To help answer that question, I recently visited former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal in the woodshop at his house in Cheyenne.
As we talked about the task force he convened in 2009 to address the issue of workplace safety, he reflected on the irony that he was the one leading the push for change back then: “You know, I don’t have my ear protection out here that I’m supposed to have when I use this stuff, so I’m not a very good example,” he said, gesturing around the shop.
According to the former governor, there wasn’t a specific incident or moment that made him decide to address workplace safety, but it was pretty clear that it needed addressing. In the first week of 2009, three oil and gas workers died in Wyoming in separate accidents. One was crushed by a truck, another suffered a fatal head injury on a rig and yet another rolled his car after leaving the drill site. The tricky part, Freudenthal says, was figuring out what to do. “How do you change the way we deal with safety in general in a place like Wyoming?” he asked.
In other words, a place with a very independent streak and strong anti-regulation sensibility. The task force he convened came up with three key recommendations for safety improvements. Two of those were basically non-starters in Wyoming: mandated seat belts and higher fines for workplace accidents. But the third recommendation found support: hiring an occupational epidemiologist to study worker fatalities similar to the way diseases are studied.
Despite support for the hire, actual implementation got off to a rocky start. The first person to hold the position, Dr. Timothy Ryan, quit after less than 2 years on the job, frustrated at the snail pace of change.
Speaking to the New York Times after he resigned, Ryan said he did not have the political support to do his job:
“The current Legislature is not interested in any new regulations that have to do with safety. It got to the point where I wanted to see the action that’s connected to these findings, and I decided it wasn’t happening at a pace I was comfortable with.”
“You know, you hire somebody like that to do that job because you want them to be passionate about it,” Freudenthal said. “Unfortunately, sometimes, that passion can cause them to be impatient with a slow and difficult cultural change in a place that’s been the way it’s been since territorial days.”
Cultural change may be slow and difficult, but the state’s current occupational epidemiologist, Mack Sewell, believes Wyoming is making progress. He works with organizations like the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance, an industry group that holds regular meetings and trainings for oil and gas operators. Sewell provides the group with data about how workers are injured and die, along with recommendations.
“I’ve had people come up to me from the audience and say, ‘This first time we’ve ever seen data like this,’” Sewell said. “So I get the sense that the industry folks really like this kind of feedback.”
Not only that, he thinks the information is helping reduce fatalities. Today, oil and gas workers in Wyoming are dying at half the rate they were back in the late 2000s, although it’s hard to pinpoint an exact figure because of the extremely small sample size.
Not everyone is sure that’s reflective of a change in the culture though. John Vincent is a lawyer who frequently represents injured oil and gas workers. Five years after the big push to reform things, he’s still seeing workers die, and he doesn’t see a change in attitudes. “I just have to say it doesn’t appear that it’s gotten off to a running start,” he said, referring to the workplace safety initiative. To Vincent, it’s pretty clear hat something else is at play in the reduced fatality rate — namely, that the boom has moved on, to North Dakota.
The numbers bear that out. Wyoming’s rig count today is half what it was in 2006, while North Dakota’s is five times what it was. And studies have show that in boom times, workers die faster. Kyla Retzer is a researcher with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. She says there are a few explanations for that, starting with the fact that in a boom, companies tend to bring old rigs back that lack safety equipment.
“Also, more workers are hired and those workers often don’t have as much experience in the oil field and are more at risk,” Retzer said. Especially if a “culture of safety” is lacking.
Oil and gas development in Wyoming is once again ramping up. This time, there will be plenty of people watching to see if the measures taken since the last boom make any difference in the lives and deaths oil and gas workers.