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ND oilfield injuries have jumped since 2004

Though North Dakota has become the No. 4 oil-producing state in the U.S. and statewide oilfield-related injuries have steadily risen since 2004, it is one of five states that does not participate in reporting injuries to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nivedita Bhushan of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Office of Safety and Health Statistics, said states can choose to participate and often base their decisions on confidential information or there may be a lack of data to produce any numbers.

The increase in oil activity has brought more workers and the number of oil and gas development and drilling injury claims filed with North Dakota Workforce Safety & Insurance in 2008 was 164 as compared to 38 in 2004.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not require employers to report injuries unless three or more workers are injured or a fatality occurs.

Such as the case with the recent death of 22-year-old Christopher Whalen of Havre, Mont., who was fatally injured while drilling holes for seismograph lines about four miles north and two miles east of Beach on Friday afternoon.

Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, Oil and Gas Division, said seismograph information is used to plan the oil well's path and estimate the oil pocket's depth.

A 3-inch diameter, 250-pound steel pipe fell on Whalen's head. He was transported to St. Joseph's Hospital and Health Center in Dickinson, where he was immediately transported to St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck.

Whalen died on Saturday.

Mike Maslowski, OSHA acting area director, said agency investigators were still on scene Tuesday afternoon and what caused the pipe to fall is still unknown.

Concerns over increased oil industry-related road activity in the area and across the state also could reflect the increase in NDWSI claims.

In 2004, 11 oil well trucking-related injury claims were filed. In 2008, that number increased to 94.

OSHA recently sent letters to 15,000 workplaces nationwide with the highest injury numbers and illnesses resulting in days away from work, restricted work activities or job transfers, one of which included Black Hills Trucking, Inc. of Dickinson, according to a U.S. Department of Labor press release.

Black Hills Trucking provides oil and water transportation along with rig relocation services, oilfield equipment transport and crane services.

"Receipt of this letter means that workers in that particular establishment are being injured at a higher rate than in most other businesses of its kind in the country," said OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels. "Employers whose businesses have injury and illness rates this high need to take immediate steps to protect their workers."

But some involved in the oil industry say operations have become much safer over the years.

Jim Solberg, a tenured oilfield safety expert and owner of Safe Com, LLC, a Williston-based company providing safety and compliance specialists, said in previous years in the oilfield, safety was always talked about but not enforced.

"It's a big turnaround," Solberg said. "Nowadays, the major oil companies are putting such an emphasis on safety and environmental compliance that all the contractors that work in the oilfield have to raise their standard to meet the requirements of OSHA and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)."

Solberg said if a company has 10 or more employees, they are required to keep an OSHA log documenting all injuries.

"Other than that, no it doesn't get reported anywhere," Solberg said.

Most of the injuries in the oilfield are from slips, trips and falls, Solberg said.

"If you look at how the oilfield has grown and companies and the contractor-basis has grown in the amount of workers working in the oilfield right now, I'd say your injury rate has went down," Solberg said.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said safety has become a primary issue.

"I think it has substantially changed since the previous boom," Ness said. "I think we're seeing fewer and fewer of them. I think the industry's trying to do a better job and employees are frankly doing a much better job. It's a safer workplace."