North Dakota Oil Field Good for Business, Bad for Workers

oil derrickLast week we reported that one state was enjoying a decline in the rate of workplace fatalities; however the amount of workplace fatalities nationally rose by two percent last year and in other states that number was even higher. North Dakota in particular is witnessing an alarming increase in the number of workers killed on the job.

In the state, 84.7 workers per 100,000 are killed on the job, while the national number is 3.3 deaths per 100,000 workers. The gas and oil industry saw a 27 percent increase in workplace fatalities since 2013. Texas and North Dakota produce half of the country’s crude oil, and the Bakken and Three Forks areas of North Dakota are oil rig sites that have seen their fair share of worker injuries. In 2011 two workers were killed when an oil rig exploded while one was severely injured and later committed suicide. It was the first day on the job for one of the workers killed. The accident was the worst experienced by the Bakken oil region.

The state is experiencing an “oil boom” of sorts which means there are a lot of jobs available, but maybe inexperienced workers filling those positions. Since the work is fairly dangerous, that’s a recipe for disaster. Workers are there for long hours so fatigue could be a factor in the increase of fatalities.

Oil work is done by different employers who hire contractors and independent supervisors, so when an accident occurs it can be hard to tell who is liable in terms of OSHA penalties, and who is responsible for benefits to the injured workers. Since the oil industry is producing very rapidly in this state and others, workers are typically moving fast and safety is taking a backseat as a result.

The company who owned the well where those three workers were killed or injured, Oasis Petroleum, did not receive any fines or penalties from OSHA though there were investigations following the accident. The company who employed the workers, Carlson Well Service, did receive penalties for failing to provide safety equipment and an $84,000 fine, which was later reduced to $63,000.

The director of the Bismarck OSHA office, Eric Brooks, said that there are not really hard and fast requirements for the oil and gas industry so they rely on the “general duty clause” which asks that all employers keep a safe workplace. While related industries like mining have very specific and strict enforcing standards, the oil industry sort of polices itself. This, critics say, doesn’t seem to do much for workers since the industry would be more likely to standards that help their interests rather than focus on the safety of workers.

Hopefully regulators and OSHA inspectors will start to take a closer look at rigs in these regions before another tragedy occurs.

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