CONCORD — Samantha Wooten has reluctantly accepted the fact that she’ll never know what caused the work-site accident that killed her father in 2016, but she could soon be comforted by the knowledge that other families may be spared a similar fate.
Wooten has been trying for three years to get state labor laws changed to better protect public-sector employees after her father, Tom Wooten of Belmont, was trapped between a tractor and the trailer it was hauling while working for the Northfield Highway Department.
In New Hampshire, private-sector employees are subject to the protections and oversight of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but state, county and municipal employees are not.
Twenty-eight states have adopted an OSHA partnership with a 50-50 funding split that extends OSHA protections to public works employees, but New Hampshire is not one of them.
The state Senate on Thursday is scheduled to vote on a House bill that that won’t go so far as to create an OSHA plan for New Hampshire’s public sector employees, but it will require more aggressive action by the state Department of Labor after serious workplace accidents.
The bill, HB 406, passed the House in a voice vote on March 14. The Senate Commerce Committee endorsed it, 5-0, on April 11. If the Senate passes the bill on Thursday and it’s signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu, all of which seems likely at this point, it will mark the end of a three-year journey for Wooten.
She appeared before lawmakers for the third time last week, in what has become an emotionally draining exercise for the Department of Justice employee who works as a case manager for juvenile court diversion.
“It is still unclear how or why my father was caught between the two machines,” she told senators. “It crushed his pelvis. I would have thought that since this accident resulted in an untimely death, there would be an adequate investigation, but I was proven wrong. There was no investigation besides the police report.”
The drivers submitted to blood toxicology tests, but no further investigation was conducted and, as far as Wooten knows, no procedures were changed.
“That lack of investigation made me feel my father’s life did not mean as much as someone in the private sector, where OSHA has jurisdiction,” she testified. “I have to live every day without seeing my dad’s bright eyes and handsome smile.”
In fatal accidents, the bill requires a state Department of Labor investigation, stating, “The commissioner shall investigate the cause of death and may notify the employer of precautions to be taken that may prevent the recurrence of similar events.”
In cases of serious injury, the commissioner of labor will have the option of launching an investigation and providing safety recommendations.
The bill defines serious injury as anything that results in an amputation, loss or fracture of any body part, head injury or an internal injury that requires immediate hospitalization.
“This bill addresses a very significant issue,” said prime sponsor Rep. Rebecca McBeath, D-Portsmouth. “This will impact all of our citizens, from the high school student operating a weed wacker to our school and highway employees. The goal here is that these serious injuries and accidents can be looked at, investigated, and suggestions made on how to prevent them in the future.”
Rudy Ogden, deputy commissioner at the state Department of Labor, said the agency welcomes the opportunity to have reporting requirements and inspection authority written into statute, but is not equipped to provide OSHA-level inspections.
“We are not OSHA. We do not have the funding and training that OSHA has,” said Ogden. “So even if this is set up, you are not going to get us doing accident reconstruction or things of that nature.”
Susi Nord, an administrator with the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, has worked closely with Wooten, along with former Democratic state Rep. Mark MacKenzie, a longtime AFL-CIO executive who gave up his seat last year for an unsuccessful Congressional bid.
Ultimately, they’d like to see a New Hampshire-based OSHA plan for public employees, but Nord said the provisions of HB 406, if implemented, will be an improvement.
“I know they won’t investigate everything,” she said. “That doesn’t happen with OSHA. But the national council would like to see the state of New Hampshire move toward seeing that inspectors who protect our public employees have the training they need.”