Death on the job: North Dakota ranks dead last in worker safety

Protect yourself. That's the best advice Barbara Allen has for workers, especially for those in the Oil Patch. "There's been so many accidents that I'm sure could have been avoided with a little safety," said Allen, who lost her son, Terry Metcal...


Protect yourself.

That's the best advice Barbara Allen has for workers, especially for those in the Oil Patch.

"There's been so many accidents that I'm sure could have been avoided with a little safety," said Allen, who lost her son, Terry Metcalf, to an oil field accident nine months ago. "Instead of depending on the company you work for, you're just going to have to take care of yourself. Not depend on somebody else to take care of it for you."

On Tuesday evening, the AFL-CIO released its annual "Death on the Job Report," ranking North Dakota in last place for worker safety, with a worker fatality rate in 2011 of 12.4 per 100,000 workers. The national rate is 3.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers. There were 44 fatalities in North Dakota in 2011.

"I think it is mostly a function of the industries that your state is in as a state and the number of people in your state," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said upon hearing the news.


"Our industries are petroleum -- which is not considered a particularly safe industry -- agriculture is not considered a particularly safe industry and we also have a fair amount of heavy manufacturing, which is not relatively safe. ... If we were Connecticut and we all worked in office buildings all day long, we would have a much better rate."

Connecticut was fourth on list -- with a fatality rate of 2.2 per 100,000 workers.

"I see a lot of professionalism and I see a lot of commitment to safety -- I think our companies compare well with the average company in the United States," Dalrymple said. "I really think those statistics are more a matter of the businesses that are booming in our state."

Metcalf, 52, fell at a site outside of Killdeer on Aug. 6 and was pronounced dead on the scene.

"They say it gets better with time, but it don't," Allen said. "I still don't understand why he fell. Nobody seems to know. I can't get any closure on that -- which I guess I probably never will, because I don't think anybody's going to figure that out."

Allen had previously told The Press her son was a safety-conscious person who had worked in the oil field since he graduated from high school.

North Dakota's fatalities have increased since 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That year there were 28 work-related fatalities statewide. It went down to 25 in 2009 and up to 30 in 2010. In 2011, 23 of the 44 work-related fatalities, more than half, were related to transportation.

"We've had OSHA around -- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- for 40 years now and we still haven't figured it out -- that killing people's not a good thing. That's very frustrating," said Bill Wuolu, training director of the North Dakota Safety Council, a non-government, nonprofit agency.


While there have been fatalities and blowouts in North Dakota's Oil Patch, none have been accidents on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that caused the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"When you're dealing with flammable liquids and combustible materials like fertilizers and petroleum oils and things like that, it can be deadly," said Tom Ricker, president of the North Dakota chapter of AFL-CIO.

A combination of a need for workers and a drove of inexperienced workers is part of the reason fatalities have gone up in recent years.

"The rest of the United States is in an economic downturn," Wuolu said. "We have an economy here and we have a need for workers, and what we're getting is workers that are doing jobs that they're not trained, skilled or maybe qualified -- or some combination of those three -- for it."

Climate is also a factor in worker safety, he said.

Safety education -- both at the beginning of a job and ongoing -- is key to both employers and employees making safe decisions, Wuolu said.

"I hear so many times when I'm doing training, 'But Bill, that's common sense,'" he said. "Really? How did you know about it before you ever experienced it? If this isn't the background that you've come from -- if you've never experienced this before -- you can't say that this is common sense."

Safety violations aren't something workers or employers set out to do, Wuolu said.


"We've gotten away with it, so we do it again and again," he said.

Workers also need a voice in the workplace, Ricker said.

"They need a voice not only in their work conditions, but in their safety and health conditions as well," he said. "The workers who work these jobs day in and day out, they understand the risks as well or better than anybody else, and they know what needs to be done to ensure a safe workplace."

Not only should employees be careful at work, they should be careful of who they work for, Allen said.

"My best advice is just stay out of the oil field," she said. "Make sure you check the company out before you go to work for them. You can always find out if they've had any fines from OSHA. That's what I would do. I never thought of that a year or two ago."

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