Dying to Find Fault in Wyoming

August 24th, 2009 by

Wyoming might be a good place to work, but it’s also a good place to die at work. The mortality rate for occupational injuries is three times the national average, with 15.6 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Many of these fatalities occur in the oil fields, where “roughnecks” make pretty good wages in exchange for working in relatively dangerous conditions. As DeeDee Correll writes in the Los Angeles Times, everyone shares the goal of improving safety on the far-flung job sites, but there is a continental divide in how to achieve that goal.
Most oil workers are employed by independent contractors, who provide the bodies for the intense work in the fields. The fields are owned by big corporations. On one side of the fence you find workers and their advocates, who want to be able to hold the big corporations liable for what happens on the job. They want to be able to sue the big corporations when they suffer catastrophic injuries or deaths on the job.
The counter argument says that workers comp – carried by the employers of these field workers – should be the exclusive remedy for work-related injuries.
At issue here is the question of accountability and control: under current Wyoming case law, injured workers have to prove that the operator maintained “pervasive” control over the site. This is a very high standard, because the daily operations at these sites are primarily under the control of the independent contractors. By lowering the standard of control, worker advocates would make it easier for workers to sue the oil companies for damages.
Denim Versus Suits
The battleground for this dispute is the Wyoming legislature. As is so often the case, there is considerable theatricality on display. Many of the roughnecks lobbying for a change in the law show the scars of their chosen occupation. They are dressed in denim and baseball caps. Their opposition, lawyers for the oil companies, wear the indispensable dark suits.
The “suits” counter the compelling visual evidence of the roughnecks with some dubious arguments, maintaining, for example, that any change in the law would expose home owners to liability for injuries to contractors working on their houses. That’s a red herring, as homeowners rarely exercise significant control over the work environment of their contractors.
There should be enough middle ground in this dispute to fashion a meaningful compromise. Wide-open litigation is rarely the best way to go. The legislature should set specific standards for safe operating procedures in the oil fields. Oil companies should be held accountable for meeting these standards. Only if they are demonstrably negligent in maintaining and documenting these standards should the door be opened to law suits. At the same time, the state should bolster the benefits available to workers who are killed or severely injured on the job.
The “exclusive remedy” provision of workers comp is a standard well worth preserving. It’s tempting to carve out exceptions, but each exception becomes a fault line in the fundamental compromise that is workers comp. We are nearing the 100th anniversary of comp in America (New York 1911). For the most part, it is a remarkably successful experiment in public policy. The law makers of Wyoming would do well to keep this success in mind: by all means tinker with the statute to make it more responsive to 21st century working conditions, but don’t mess with the premise. This is not the time to find fault with “no fault.”

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