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Know the West

Yellowstone soft on safety

  After five people working in Yellowstone National Park were accidentally killed in a little less than four years, a federal investigation found that the first and most famous national park had ignored hundreds of safety regulations.

"Employees at almost all levels demonstrated an unwillingness to take responsibility for safety," concluded a 1998 report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It classified nearly 600 of the park's violations as "serious' and issued 130 citations - more than any other national park has ever received - in virtually every category of safety and health standards.

The problems ranged from minor infractions, such as excess accumulations of bat guano in the attic of the park's administration building, to life-threatening situations, such as asking employees to log trees without protective equipment and without immediate access to emergency medical care.

"I do not believe that park workers were ever careless just to be careless," says Yellowstone Superintendent Mike Finley. "They were just so dedicated to get the job done for the public under spartan conditions that they took risks they shouldn't have."

Yellowstone has started to clean up its act. After spending $200,000 on safety improvements, says OSHA, Yellowstone has fixed the violations and reduced the number of employee accidents.

The Yellowstone deaths and the safety review have been a wake-up call to the entire agency, says Carol Anthony, a staffer at the Park Service's national headquarters. "We want to see a different work ethic, where we still serve and protect our visitors in the most appropriate manner, but we need ... to make sure we take care of our own so that they can take care of others."

For a summary of the report go to www.hcn.org and click on OSHA.

* Christopher Smith