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In North Dakota, there will be blood

The state has highest rate of worker deaths in country, thanks to lax regulations and the favor of the oil industry

May 15, 2014 1:45AM ET

Life is cheap in North Dakota, where a new study (PDF) finds that workers are being killed on the job at five times the national rate. 

Deaths on the job in North Dakota more than doubled from 2007 to 2012, rising from 25 to 65, as reported by Al Jazeera America’s Renee Lewis.

The reasons for this are deeply disturbing for what they say not only about industrial workplace safety, but about politics in 21st century America and how capital is favored over workers.

The increase in deaths tracks the frenzied efforts to extract oil and natural gas from the rich Bakken fields, believed to hold more than $1 trillion in carbon-based fuels. There is so much money to be made quickly that companies are not even waiting for adequate infrastructure to move all the natural gas to market.

Blaming the rising death toll on the oil companies, however, misses the real problem, which lies squarely with our elected officials.

Satellite image of the United States at night (Photo illustration: Al Jazeera America; photo source: NASA)

Low value on human life

At night North Dakota glows almost as brightly as Chicago as gas from more than 9,000 wells is just burned off, NASA satellite photos show. A third of the natural gas gets wasted this way, according to Ceres, a nonprofit that tracks the environmental records of companies. If companies are willing to waste $1.2 billion of natural gas per year, imagine the calculus on job safety.

Oil-field work, while inherently dangerous, need not result in nearly as many deaths as North Dakota reports. The problem is that state legislators have enacted laws that place a low value on human life. That value is so low that it makes no economic sense for employers to invest in worker safety.  In North Dakota, preventing accidents costs much more than paying off the families of dead workers.

Here are the facts. The one-time death benefit for workers killed on the job in North Dakota: $1,200. If the worker has dependent children, that payment goes up by $400 per child. The state also covers documented funeral expenses, but only up to $6,500.

Those rates of payment may have been appropriate in 1919, when North Dakota’s workers’ compensation law first took effect. But in 2014 they are worse than heartless — they are an incentive to avoid investing in equipment and practices that will reduce worker deaths.

There are also monthly payments to widows, so long as they do not remarry, and to orphans until they are 18. A widow or widower gets two-thirds of a spouse’s pay up to a bit more than the average state pay. Since oil-field workers often make more than the state average, that means a widow may get less than half of what her husband made before he was killed on the job. Finally, the maximum that the family of a dead worker can collect over the years is just $250,000.

But the best single indicator of callous disregard for human life shown by North Dakota lawmakers is the benefit authorized for orphans, a maximum of $15 per week. You read that right — 15 bucks a week.

At current staffing, it would take federal job safety inspectors 111 years to inspect every job site in North Dakota.

That strikes me as a form of state-sanctioned child abuse that every child advocate, every member of the clergy, every moral leader in North Dakota should denounce daily until it is replaced by a payment schedule that reflects the needs of orphans, not the greed of those who donate to political campaigns.

But the worst abuse is in setting the bar so low that the state has removed any economic incentive for companies to invest in practices and equipment that prevent deaths and injuries from falls, falling objects, accidents on the road and other dangers.

Workers’ bill of rights

This is an old story and not restricted to North Dakota. I have reported on several such cases, notably that of Robert Manning, a New York utility worker, paralyzed from the neck down, who was fighting to get his benefits 35 years later. When he died in 2009 after 47 years of paralysis, his family was owed more than $1 million.

The medical director of North Dakota’s workers’ compensation program, Dr. Luis Vilella, complained to his bosses in writing this year that medical opinions on worker injuries are ignored in favor of decisions that bar or reduce payouts to injured workers. Vilella also said his bosses pressured him to change his medical opinions to disadvantage workers. (Bryan Klipfel, who runs the workers’ compensation program, told North Dakota journalist Patrick Springer that Vilella’s complaint lacked merit.)

Years ago I interviewed Joshua Zimmerman, who was 15 years old and working at Valley Dairy Car Wash in Grand Forks when his arm was ripped off by an industrial-size cloth-drying machine that was being used without a door.

The North Dakota workers’ compensation program held that the teenager was entitled to nothing for the loss of his arm despite the fact that the machine had been used for months without safeguards and a manager had been warned about the risks. Josh told me he never got a dime.

Cindy Gomez-Schempp, who has written numerous exposés of the North Dakota workers’ compensation system, argues that the state is more interested in turning a profit from the state-run insurance fund than paying legitimate claims.

“We need a workers’ bill of rights,” she told me, noting that state law says workers must get “sure and certain relief” from death or injury on the job, but denial of claims is what is almost certain.

“The state does not even allow to use an attorney until the end stage of the claims process, which is rigged against workers,” she said.

OSHA cut

North Dakota is merely the most egregious example of a national problem. Over the past two decades, state legislatures have cut workers’ compensation benefits and forced many workers into litigating in what is supposed to be a no-fault system in which workers trade the possibility of significant damages for certainty of modest payment.

Congress is also part of the problem. Bowing to those companies that say workers’ compensation payments and job safety are expenses they cannot afford, it has cut the budget for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and severely limited its powers to enforce safety rules.

In North Dakota, for example, there are currently eight inspectors, or one for every 51,000 workers. At current staffing, it would take federal job safety inspectors 111 years to inspect every job site in North Dakota, the AFL-CIO calculated. That is an ominous indicator of the callous disregard Congress has for the well-being of American workers. 

We do not need safety inspectors monitoring every job site every day; the AFL-CIO suggests that North Dakota should have 41 inspectors. But we do need a level of inspection that will put employers on guard and identify and pursue those who, for whatever reason, do not focus enough on worker safety and put life and limb at risk in a blind pursuit of profit.

Combine adequate safety inspections and enough lawyers to pursue the few employers who behave badly with significant compensation for death and certain payment for injury, and our lawmakers will create incentives for employers to invest in safe practices and safe equipment.

Sadly, in North Dakota the state Legislature has shown it has little regard for the lives of its workers — and even less for its orphans.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column mistakenly indentified the benefit for a child whose parent is killed in North Dakota. The benefit is $15 per week, not the $10 per month cited in the original version of this column. We regret the error.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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