A crew worked at a pipeline construction site south of Gillette over the weekend. In Wyoming, vehicle accidents are the leading cause of workplace fatalities. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

by Pamela King, E&E reporter

Over the past year, the umbrella group for U.S. unions has called on employers, federal and state agencies, and its own members to conduct a comprehensive review of safety issues in the oil and gas industry and propose interventions to avoid those problems.

Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s health and safety director, said she has reached out informally to agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which she envisions taking the joint lead on the effort, but progress has been slow.

“There’s a particular focus that is needed on the oil and gas industry,” Seminario said during a call with reporters last week. “With that industry growing and expanding, we have seen a very big increase in job fatalities in oil and gas not just in North Dakota, but in other states, and that industry is going to continue to grow and expand. It’s an incredibly dangerous industry and needs much more attention by employers, by OSHA, other federal agencies and state agencies as well.”

She highlighted North Dakota, which, with 17.7 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2012, recorded the highest fatality rate in the nation for the second year in a row, according to an AFL-CIO report published yesterday. That’s up from 12.4 in 2011 and double the state’s pre-boom 2007 rate of 7.0.

Following North Dakota were Wyoming (12.2), Alaska (8.9), Montana (7.3) and West Virginia (6.9) — all of which have an energy presence.

This worker helped with the operation of Ensign's automated "iron derrick hand" rig west of Casper in 2009. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
This worker helped with the operation of Ensign’s automated “iron derrick hand” rig west of Casper in 2009. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
This worker helped with the operation of Ensign’s automated “iron derrick hand” rig west of Casper in 2009. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

In North Dakota’s oil and gas extraction sector, the fatality rate was an “alarming” 104 per 100,000 workers, more than six times the rate of 15.9 for the industry nationwide, according to the report.

“The escalating fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas extraction industry demand intensive and comprehensive intervention,” the report says. “Without action, the workplace fatality crisis in this industry will only get worse as production intensifies and expands.”

Seminario said she would like the oil and gas industry, whose workplaces are regulated by OSHA, to fall under an industry-specific watchdog similar to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversees coal operations.

“If [oil and gas] is going to become a major source or bigger source of energy in this country, I think we need to rethink the approach and regulatory model and [look] at perhaps something much more akin to the kind of regulation and oversight that we have in coal mining and bringing that into oil and gas, because clearly it’s just as hazardous,” she said. A tailored response

Data from Pennsylvania and Texas should indicate to regulators that they cannot apply a one-size-fits-all oversight and intervention strategy to oil and gas, said Steve Everley, spokesman for the industry group Energy In Depth.

The Keystone State, home of the prolific Marcellus gas play, recorded a fatality rate identical to the national average of 3.4 per 100,000 workers, according to AFL-CIO’s analysis. Texas, the nation’s top oil producer, had a fatality rate of 4.8, the report says.

“The point here isn’t to say that current fatality rates are acceptable. I doubt you would find anyone who would even suggest such a thing,” Everley wrote in an email. “But if we’re going to look at safety issues related to hydraulic fracturing specifically or oil and gas production generally, then it’s much more useful to examine those issues in their proper context.”

North Dakota’s safety issues, for example, have been said to stem from an inundation of inexperienced workers into a state with a relatively young oil and gas industry. State officials have called for increased training and education efforts to better equip new employees with the skills they need to successfully handle an unfamiliar job and to make them aware of the deadly risks they could face while on the clock.

Eric Brooks, area director for OSHA in Bismarck, N.D., said his office has launched a problem-solving initiative to better serve an industry whose work sites are spaced far apart and often off the beaten path. The initiative, which will enter its third phase this year, sends compliance officers out across the oil patch.

“When they see stuff, they stop,” Brooks said.

The approach is meant to make the most out of North Dakota’s limited workplace oversight staff, which is responsible for a vast chunk of the Great Plains. A recent spate of retirements has made this “the worst logistical time to have a boom,” Brooks said.

Though he was not aware of Seminario’s proposal, its core goal is one he shares.

“All worker deaths are preventable,” Brooks said. “I have to believe that. The alternative is that it costs a worker’s life to do business in America.”

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  1. Interesting story but I would have expect to see Wyoming mentioned in more than just the photo cutlines. What does the Wyoming AFL-CIO have to say about workplace safety in the oil patch? What is the fatality rate in Wyoming? After all I thought this was the WYOfile.