By Chris Hennen, The High Plains Reader
A new, forthcoming report from the AFL-CIO on workplace-related deaths in 2012 in the United States shows North Dakota leading the nation, by far, in the number of deaths per 100,000 workers. The report entitled “Death on the Job” is compiled with preliminary numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor and it ranked North Dakota dead last, 50th out of 50 states with 64 workplace-related deaths in 2012, up from 44 in 2011 and 30 in 2010. North Dakota had a rate of 16.7 worker fatalities per 100,000 employees in the report. The next closest state ranked number 49 was Wyoming, which had 35 deaths in 2012 at a rate of 12 per 100,000 employees. The national average was 3.2 deaths per 100,000 workers.
While the report doesn’t exactly state how many of the 64 deaths are from the oil and gas industry, there are some clues to help deduce that it makes up the majority of fatalities. The report breaks down 15 of the deaths coming from mining, 25 from construction and six from transportation, all of which are major growth areas related to the oil boom in North Dakota.
North Dakota has become the second highest oil-producing state in the nation recently. Other states with large oil production numbers don’t see as high of a rate in deaths per 100,000 workers in this report, however. Texas, for example, the state with the highest amount of oil production in the nation, leads the nation with 531 workplace-related deaths in 2012, according to the report. That is largely due to the sheer number of workers in that state and it translates to a rate of 4.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, far below North Dakota’s rate of 16.7; and it puts Texas at a ranking of 37th in the report. Alaska, the third highest oil producing state in the nation, had a rate of 7.7 workplace deaths per 100,000 employees for a ranking of 48th; still its average per 100,000 workers is half of North Dakota’s.
With such a stark increase in the numbers of workplace deaths in North Dakota, while a majority of other states’ trends show decreasing numbers, it is sure to put pressure on federal and state officials to improve workplace safety in the state. Overall, this report does show much higher death numbers for North Dakota than any other reports compiled from other sources including from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Officials we talked to said this because of the inclusion of deaths outside of OSHA’s jurisdiction, including work-related transportation deaths. BLS numbers also are for 2012 and not 2013 because they wait for most of the workplace-related deaths and injury cases to be closed before compiling the report.
Labor officials who spoke with HPR said the report confirmed many fears they had about the impact of the explosion of the oil and gas industry in the state.
“It shows that once again North Dakota is probably the most dangerous state in the United States for workers,” said Tom Ricker, North Dakota AFL-CIO’s president.
Mark Froemke, president of the West Area Labor Council, which includes Fargo-Moorhead, told HPR:
“With those kind of statistics at that level, it’s very, very shocking that obviously something is fundamentally wrong in North Dakota to have so many people killed on the job and why have we not made more of those jobs safer. Now obviously in certain fields there is a higher rate of accidents such as in coal mining and so forth, but nevertheless great strides have been taken to make these jobs extremely safe like in underground coal mining. It should be the same requirement and the same effort made in North Dakota and the Bakken to make sure those jobs are safe for workers when they go to work so they return to their families in the same condition they went to work.”
A number of the officials we talked to pointed to the lack of increase in OSHA inspectors following the sharp increase in production and activity due to the oil boom. The Bismarck area office of OSHA currently has eight inspectors to oversee all industry in the state, down from nine before the oil boom ramped up, despite North Dakota seeing an increase in almost 50,000 workers in the oil and gas industry from 2009 to 2012. Ricker feels more federal oversight is needed from OSHA.
“In 2011, they said if they were to inspect every work site in North Dakota, it would take 93 years. The data for 2012 says if they were to inspect every workplace in North Dakota, it would take 111 years. So as far as there being federal cuts to OSHA and no increases yet, we are losing workers faster than any other state and there are no additional resources as far as safety,” Ricker said.
Eric Brooks, OSHA’s area director in Bismarck, said he, like any federal manager, would welcome additional resources to address these issues but he realizes these are challenging budgetary times in the federal government. He did point to the fact that OSHA has brought in additional investigators from the region on dedicated enforcement actions. When asked whether they have matched increases in oversight with the increases in level of production, Brooks told us the answer is no.
“We have fewer people doing many more inspections. We have a higher burnout rate,” Brooks replied. “I look at what our folks are doing, I look at the enforcement action that they are doing. There’s nothing more that they can do. We’re getting the maximum effort out of staff, and we have a good staff.”
Brooks said oil and gas work represented 10 percent of their work in 2008 and 2009 whereas now it is up to one-third of all enforcement and oversight they do. And ways to deal with that increased work load have been discussed internally.
“I know the region has discussed ways of increasing our staff levels. But under the budgetary climate that we live in, that’s not something that we can just snap our fingers and say double our staff. That’s probably an answer best left for those that control such things,” Brooks said.
As far as Brooks’ reaction to the report showing North Dakota with the highest workplace death rates in the nation with a number far higher than OSHA reports, he had a few objections.
“It looks as if it’s being based on the civilian, non-institution population,” Brooks said. “While if we are importing all of these workers but they are comparing the number of instances to our population, well basically you’ve increased your numerator but not your denominator,” Brooks said.
N.D. State Representative Ron Guggisberg (D-Fargo) told us he thinks the state government needs to become more involved in workplace safety.
“The number of OSHA workers in the state isn’t nearly enough. They can’t keep up with the work that’s being done in the state especially with the hazardous work that’s being done in the state. And I think most North Dakotans feel like we shouldn’t need to rely on the federal government. Maybe the state needs to take an active role in that. So next session, I am going to introduce legislation to have either WSI (the state Workplace Safety and Insurance Department) or the Labor Commissioner look into workplace injuries and fatalities and the cause of that,” Guggisberg replied.
Ricker agrees that some type of increase in state oversight is needed.
“I think North Dakota, maybe it’s time we look at having our own state run OSHA program. Instead of having the federal OSHA program, maybe it’s time North Dakota looks at stepping up and having its own. But the next question I would have is, do the Legislators we have currently in the Legislature, would they be willing to fund it? A state run OSHA program would actually have better enforcement and a better run program than what we have now,” Ricker said.
Guggisberg, a firefighter by trade, said a culture change is also needed among oil workers moving away from the macho, roughneck image. He said a similar type change in
attitudes in the firefighting industry helped improved safety over a number of years.
“Maybe instead of just saying that’s how it works when you are in energy development, it’s dangerous work and people die, we can look at it and try to find out ways to do it more safely and try to turn this trend around. Even though there are more workers in the state and they are doing dangerous work, it doesn’t mean we give up,” Guggisberg told HPR.
At least as far as this report is concerned and even others with lower numbers, the trends are not good in North Dakota with increases in the number of deaths and injuries rising in recent years due to the oil boom. Despite that, Brooks is seeing some encouraging signs that things are improving from the early days of the increased oil activity.
“When the boom first hit, you had a lot of opportunities and a lot of people that really didn’t have the skill set were getting into this business,” Brooks said. “I moved here from west Texas where you had third and fourth generation roughnecks. North Dakotans generally didn’t come up in that industry. You’ve got a lot of farm folk, a lot of that dedicated work ethic and I think that lack of a skill set created some of the earlier problems,” Brooks said.
“Now we are seeing companies with much more developed safety programs, much more developed training programs that we are seeing a much greater trend to improving these rates. Now ultimately only the numbers will tell years from now. “
Another prescription for dealing with the increased number of deaths is for the oil and gas workers in the state to unionize. Recently, Williston-area paramedics, stressed by the oil boom workload, moved forward on an effort to unionize over objections from city leaders. Ricker of the AFL-CIO feels doing so would improve safety for the oil and gas employees.
“I think the workers having a say in their workplace and having a say in their safety and health program would actually give them a lot more rights in the work site, a lot more voice in the work site and eventually I think it would definitely lead to a safer work site because they would have been empowered to take safety in their own hands a little more rather just hoping the company does a good job by them and takes care of them and looks out for them.”
The final report from the AFI-CIO will include solutions to fix workplace safety and health as well data from all 50 states on workplace injuries and deaths. And no doubt, North Dakota will again be a nationwide focus as media start to examine the impact of the boom and why the state is dead last.
For his part being one of the top regulators on such matters, Brooks wants to see the numbers go down no matter what report you are looking at.
“I think zero is a reasonable rate just because I can’t believe otherwise,” Brooks said. “I don’t ever want to believe that it costs someone’s life in order to do work in this country.”