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Report: North Dakota has highest rate of worker deaths

Deaths more than double amid oil boom; labor federation report blames lax regulations, OSHA underfunding

North Dakota has the nation’s highest rate of workers killed on the job – with the figure more than doubling since 2007, when the oil and gas industry expanded in the state – according to a new report. Lax regulations and a lack of funding for the federal agency responsible for overseeing worker safety have been blamed for the increased deaths.

The state had more than five times the national average of worker deaths and one of the highest job fatality rates for any state since similar studies began about two decades ago, said the report based on a study conducted by the AFL-CIO, the national federation of unions. It said 65 workers died on the job in 2012, compared with 25 workers in 2007.

The oil boom state “stands out as an exceptionally dangerous and deadly place to work,” according to the study, titled “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect.”

“A hard day’s work should not be a death sentence,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a news release issued this week in conjunction with the report. “It is unconscionable that any worker has to choose between life and putting food on the table.”

Employment in the oil, gas and mining industries has surged across the United States, increasing by 23 percent between 2007 and 2012, the report says.

Many of North Dakota’s fatalities in the oil and gas sector involved transportation, either on-site or on the road. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires large amounts of sand and water to be trucked in before it is shot at high pressure into shale formations to release the oil and gas trapped within.

“On the sites themselves, you see deaths from blowouts, getting caught in equipment, or exposure to toxic chemicals,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO.

Besides Texas, no state produces more oil than North Dakota, which has an estimated 22.3 billion barrels of total proven oil reserves in its Bakken shale region.

Seminario said North Dakota’s worker death rate is higher than that of Texas because North Dakota has a nascent, less-established oil and gas industry. Workers there generally have less training.

Lax regulations and underfunding for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were also blamed, the report said.

OSHA has just eight workplace safety and health inspectors in the state for fiscal year 2014. According to the report, it would take 111 years for the agency to inspect each workplace in the state once. OSHA carried out 252 inspections in North Dakota in fiscal year 2013.

By contrast, Massachusetts – which had the lowest worker death rate in the country – has 33 inspectors this year, and carried out 1,770 inspections in fiscal year 2013, the report said.

Safety underfunding

The report said OSHA has been politically marginalized and under-funded over the last decade, suffering eight years of “neglect and inaction” under the administration of former President George W. Bush. Though the agency has begun to recover since Bush left office, only four major safety and health standards have been issued under OSHA since 2009.

When President Barack Obama took office, things began to change despite a backlog of proposed OSHA regulations and massive industry opposition to government regulation. But progress has slowed since the 2010-midterm elections, when Republicans took control of the House, the report said.

“Obama and the White House got scared,” Seminario said. “It’s like a switch was thrown that allowed regulatory movement to slow down or even stop.”

Oversight in the mining sector, by contrast, is much more intensive and better funded. The report cites an OSHA sister organization, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), as responsible for issuing one of the four new rules created since 2009, which helped reduced coal miner’s exposure to respirable dust – a major cause of coal workers' pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease.

“The organization has mandatory inspections in every mine four times a year,” Seminario said, adding that OSHA’s average frequency of work site visits is once every 139 years. “People don’t realize how little resources are put into safety and health. OSHA is really a pretty small agency responsible for the health and safety of millions of workers at 8 to 9 million worksites.”

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