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Study: N.D. oil worker death rate 6 times U.S. average

WILLISTON, N.D. - North Dakota has the country's highest death rate for workers in the oil, gas and mining sector, at more than six times the national average, and an even higher rate among construction workers, according to a new report from the nation's largest labor union.

The AFL-CIO report, compiled from data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that North Dakota had a rate of 104 deaths per 100,000 workers in the oil, gas and mining industry in 2012. The national average was 15.9 deaths per 100,000 for the industry.

And at 97.4 deaths per 100,000 workers, the state's construction fatality rate was nearly ten times the national rate for that industry, according to the report.

"North Dakota stands out as an exceptionally dangerous and deadly place to work," the report said.

Scott Overson, assistant area director at OSHA's Bismarck office, said his agency has seen a "significant increase" in the number of fatalities in the oil fields or related to the industry in the past five to six years in North Dakota, which is now the second-highest oil producing state in the country.

"Of course construction correlates along with that, obviously with the big influx of companies and workers, infrastructure has to go on as well, which is going to increase construction activities," he said Monday.

North Dakota's oil production is second to Texas, which had an overall worker death rate of just 4.8 fatalities per 100,000 employees. In the oil, gas and mining sector, Texas had 16.6 deaths per 100,000 employees. But because North Dakota has one of the lowest populations in the country, each death contributes significantly more to its worker death rate than a fatality would in large states such as Texas.

Plus, many of North Dakota's worker deaths have occurred on the state's roads, which have struggled to keep up with increased traffic that came with the oil boom. Forty of the 65 fatal worker injuries in North Dakota in 2012 involved transportation incidents, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that traffic fatalities in North Dakota's oil counties have increased by 350 percent in the past decade - while the population in those areas has only grown by 43 percent.

According to the union's report, North Dakota had the highest overall worker fatality rate in the nation in 2012, at 17.7 deaths per 100,000 workers. The national rate was 3.4 deaths per 100,000 employees. North Dakota was trailed by Wyoming (with a rate of 12.2 deaths), Alaska (8.9 deaths), Montana (7.3 deaths), and West Virginia (6.9 deaths).

North Dakota also had the highest worker death rate in 2011, with 12.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. In 2007, before the state's oil boom took off, North Dakota's worker fatality rate was 7 deaths per 100,000 employees.

House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad, a Parshall Democrat whose district in the heart of the oil patch, said oil companies and contractors have paid attention to safety in recent years but that they must do more to identify the reasons behind the high death rate. Contributing factors could be inexperience among new workers, he said.

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a lobbying group for oil companies in the state, emphasized that transportation accidents were behind the high worker death rate in the oil and gas industry.

Cutting said that by increasing the amount of water and petroleum transported to and from sites by pipeline - and utilizing multi-well drilling pads - the number of truck trips required by each well site could be reduced making the roads safer.

Using pipelines and multi-well drilling pads could mean between 600 and 800 truck trips per site rather than the 2,000 needed now, she said.

But for now, a large number of trucks servicing the oil industry continue to test the capabilities of a road system designed for less traffic.

"The infrastructure is so behind the industry itself that it'll take years to catch up," Onstad said.

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