Worker Deaths Rise in North Dakota Oil Boom

By Jim Efstathiou Jr. | May 9, 2014

Oil and gas workers in North Dakota are six times more likely to die on the job than their peers in other states as inexperienced workers join the state’s oil and gas boom, according to a report by a labor group.

In North Dakota, 104 out of every 100,000 oil, gas and mining workers died of job-related injuries in 2012, according to a report today from the AFL-CIO labor federation. North Dakota had the highest fatality rate at 17.7 per 100,000 workers across all sectors, the AFL-CIO said, citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

North Dakota’s petroleum industry employed 40,856 people in 2011, up from 5,051 in 2005, a year before the oilfield expansion began with techniques such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. To support the surge, inexperienced workers have entered the industry, in some cases without proper training, said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO director of safety and health.

“You have a lot of workers coming into the state,” Seminario said on a conference call with reporters. “It’s an incredibly dangerous industry and needs much more attention.”

The American Petroleum Institute, the Washington-based trade group for the oil industry, stresses the need for safe workplaces, Carlton Carroll, an institute spokesman, said in response to an e-mail seeking comment on the AFL-CIO report.

Update Standards

“We are proud of our strong safety record, but even one incident is too many,” Carroll said. “We work tirelessly to update our standards and best practices on an ongoing basis to improve our record and protect employees and our environment.”

Fatalities among the state’s oil and gas workers suggests a need for greater oversight, the AFL-CIO’s Seminario said. Workplace safety is overseen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Labor Department, which has eight inspectors for North Dakota, she said.

By comparison, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversees underground and surface mines, inspects coal mines four times a year.

“We may need a different approach in oil and gas than we have right now, one that’s more akin to mining,” Seminario said.

In 2012, 4,628 workers died on the job while about 50,000 died from occupational diseases, according to the federation’s report. The fatality rate has been mostly flat since 2008.

The U.S. has about 1,955 federal and state OSHA inspectors to oversee 8 million workplaces. That translates into one inspector for every 67,847 workers.

When safety violations are found, penalties are low, according to the report. The median fine in cases with a death in fiscal year 2013 was $5,600 by federal OSHA and $6,100 under state plans.

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