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OSHA safety blitz to look at ND construction

Engulfed by soil while working on a water line.

Fell 20 feet from a roof to a concrete floor.

Pulled into a sand-mixing machine.

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The causes of workplace fatalities in North Dakota are gruesome, but they aren’t all related to the oilfield industry. Construction-related work, which is booming as the state’s infrastructure tries to keep up with oil development, has its own set of hazards. So on its third safety blitz since the oil boom began, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will focus on construction work safety — from dangers like falls, struck-by hazards and trench cave-ins — along with oilfield dangers.

OSHA has extra staff in from other offices from early July through August to conduct additional inspections, area director Eric Brooks said.

“Essentially, we’re increasing our number of boots on the ground,” he said.

Brooks said if the inspectors find especially pervasive issues, the administration may call upon additional resources to make sure employees are protected.

Brooks said this enforcement action will have more of a focus on the construction trade than past inspection blitzes.

With the infrastructure required to keep up with the oil boom — roads, schools, housing — more workers are also coming for those jobs. And that work brings its own hazards, like with trenching and excavation — Brooks said cave-in hazards are a particular point of concern.

“With excavation, you have to be protected against cave-in hazards. There are still a collection of employers that fail to take seriously that responsibility,” he said.

Since October 2011, three workers have died from incidents involving trench walls collapsing or being engulfed by soil, according to records maintained by Brooks.

On the oilfield side, the extra staff will help OSHA better identify specialized issues like exposure to poisonous gasses and other risks associated with crude oil.

OSHA spokesman Scott Allen said the agency has “strong concerns” about the amount of oil and gas fatalities and injuries in the Bakken.

Nearly 40 people in the oil and gas industry have died on the job in North Dakota since fiscal year 2010.

According to Brooks’ records, apparent causes of oilfield deaths have included falling from a rig, bursting into flames after getting soaked in oil, suffering blunt force trauma after a high-pressure release from a fracking valve, being struck by power tongs on a rig and being exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas.

Brooks said while he’s aware of discussions about possible new regulations for the oil industry, in the immediate, the inspection findings could more than likely result in more education to increase employer awareness.

Allen said the responsibility for worker safety legally falls to employers, and OSHA is out to enforce that.

“The important thing is to emphasize that it’s really incumbent on these employers to really crack down on ensuring that these workers are following all the safety regulations that OSHA has in place,” he said, “and really ensuring that all these workers are trained properly.”