Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Surviving family: Penalties don't deter unsafe workplaces

Philip L. Robidoux's last stop was at the top of a ridge at the Smith Ranch uranium mine near Douglas to pick up his lunch pail in September 1999. From there, he aimed the '78 Mack Super Liner with tanker, loaded with water, on the dirt road and followed it down the ridge toward the well field.

"The drill crew noticed that the truck was not slowing down as it should in order to make the turn into the well field," according to a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration report.

The truck left the road, bounced through a stormwater ditch and came to a sudden stop in a gully. The truck frame snapped, folding the truck and smashing the cab, killing the 37-year-old Robidoux.

MSHA concluded that Pronghorn Drilling Co. had failed to maintain the truck in safe operating condition. There were no front brakes, and "All the brake drums were oversize and severely scored, resulting in compromised braking force at all four brakes," according to the report.

For Robidoux's family, the accident revealed that the penalty doesn't meet the degree of negligence when it comes to workplace fatalities in Wyoming.

"He wasn't just a brother. He was my best friend," said Robidoux's sister, Renee Treloar.

Contacted by the Star-Tribune, former owners of Pronghorn Drilling declined to comment. Pronghorn faced several MSHA citations and significant financial penalties as a result of the accident, but the company maintained its innocence.

Pronghorn eventually won a court ruling that MSHA didn't have jurisdiction in the matter because in-situ uranium mining is more like an oil and gas operation than a traditional mine. MSHA's findings in the case were not reversed, but by the time the case was transferred to the Wyoming Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Pronghorn had gone out of business.

Treloar said she and her family lost Philip, and the only result was a few thousand dollars paid by the Wyoming Workers' Compensation Division for his burial costs.

"If they are grossly negligent, they need to be held accountable. Right now, there is no incentive to be safe," Treloar said.

On the civil rights side, an employee's right to sue was taken away in exchange for no-fault coverage under the state's workers compensation program. Regardless of who is at fault for an accident, workers compensation covers medical costs and lost wages for on-the-job injuries, and burial and death benefits in fatalities.

When it comes to safety violations and imposing penalties, it usually falls to MSHA for mining operations and OSHA for most other workplaces.

OSHA-imposed penalties related to recent oil and gas industry fatalities range from as little as nothing, to $100, to $19,250, according to OSHA records. Often, a company ends up paying a couple thousand dollars for safety violations that have resulted in a fatality.

Regulatory officials explain that monetary penalties are not set with retribution in mind. The same penalty can be assessed for a safety violation that does not result in an injury or death.

It's an effective regulatory scheme for the majority of employers who already understand that safe workplaces help their bottom line and are in everyone's best interest. But for those determined to cut corners, the savings may seem to outweigh the risk, according to Treloar.

She said she worries that without the prospect of hefty financial penalties, some companies might be tempted to gamble with safety, particularly in this down economy.

"There's just no motivation for them to be safe if they don't want to be," Treloar said.

Energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer can be reached at (307) 577-6069 or

All emphases mine...SB

No comments: