BISMARCK, N.D. – In the last two years, Occupational Safety and Health Administration Area Director Eric Brooks has seen only one month without a workplace fatality.
North Dakota has been pegged as one of the worst states for workplace safety. Safety professionals cite the influx of new employees with less industry experience as the reason for the increase in worker injuries and deaths. But they predict that will soon change.
Since October 2011, OSHA has performed 633 inspections, including 41 fatality investigations. Of those deaths, 21 cases involved violations of OSHA regulations and nine are still under investigation.
The oil and gas industry accounts for more than half of the OSHA investigations. In 2010, 36 of 70 investigations were in the oil and gas sector.
“The real challenge we’ve had with oil and gas up here is inexperienced workers,” said Dustin Austin of the North Dakota Safety Council, who chairs the oil industry’s MonDak Safety Network. “In North Dakota it’s a brand new boom. You’re typically going to see more injuries.”
Nick Jolliffe, loss control director for the state Workforce Safety and Insurance agency, said from 2007 -11, 50 percent of claims filed were for employees who worked for a company less than one year. In the oil and gas industry, that number was 80 percent. In construction, it was 55 percent and in health care, it was 42 percent.
Austin said the oil and gas industry is at the point where the boom is maturing and workers are gaining enough experience that injuries and deaths are going to start decreasing.
One way OSHA is combating the increase in workplace incidents is with a problem-solving initiative, Brooks said. The agency brought in inspectors from around the region — North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming — for a month this year to conduct site inspections in oil and gas counties.
“The goal was to have a constant field presence at all times covering the Bakken formation as we know it,” Brooks said. “If we can make a difference there, it makes a huge impact.”
The inspectors covered three counties at a time. If they saw a site in operation, they stopped.
In a month’s time, the inspectors conducted
57 investigations, 53 directly related to oil and gas. That is more than half of the oil and gas inspections in the whole region for the previous year.
Also related to oil and gas, MonDak Safety Network partnered with OSHA to host an event called a Safety Standdown.
Austin said he formed MonDak about a year ago because he wanted a place where industry professionals could gather to talk about oil and gas safety. Nothing so specific had existed before, he said.
The Standdown took place last February. Austin said 600 people attended the workshop in person and about 1,200 watched the broadcast or participated in follow-up activities. During the session, Brooks addressed all of the North Dakota workplace deaths and what had happened in each instance, he said.
Because of the Standdown’s success, a national Standdown for all industries will be held in November and a construction Standdown will be held in the state Oct. 1.
Chuck Clairmont, executive director of the North Dakota Safety Council, said the leading cause of deaths across all industries is vehicle and equipment accidents. The leading injury is crushed hands.
Brooks said since August 2002 nationwide, more than 80 percent of oil and gas fatalities happened because of falls, people being struck by something, being caught between things, electrocution or fires and explosions.
Contractors are most often the ones getting injured on oil and gas sites, Austin said. Many jobs on rig sites, from drilling to transport, are contracted out to other companies.
Austin said many contractors are new companies just getting into the industry and are not aware of OSHA standards. He said oil companies can verify contractors only so far, checking to see that they have a safety plan but not necessarily knowing their safety history.
“Training is one of the best ways to improve safety up here,” Austin said. “Education is, I think, one of most important things.”
Austin said oil and gas as an industry puts a lot of money toward safety, with thousands of dollars worth of safety wear and site-specific orientation going beyond OSHA standards.
Other industries, like construction, are experiencing the same kind of inexperience but injury and fatality numbers have just been less, Clairmont said. Fatigue from longer hours and more dangerous chemicals on oil and gas sites adds to that difference, he said.
“It’s just going to take time to get that on-the-job training,” Clairmont said.
A lack of road infrastructure has increased the number of driving-related incidents, he said.
“Build-up is the hardest part about the boom,” he said.
Officials see a cultural shift among workers in their concern for safe working environments.
Austin said three crews drove several hundred miles to attend the Standdown meeting.
“That’s what we want to see,” Clairmont said.
Clairmont said that since 2012, the North Dakota Safety Council has conducted 1,400 classes reaching 25,000 people. More than half of the classes are private on-site training sessions for companies.
Clairmont said in the next 12 to 18 months, the group hopes to have training that allows workers to do things like put on the safety equipment or practice securing safety lines before they get on the job. The North Dakota Safety Council also has expanded it’s heavy equipment operation training.
Brooks said OSHA has worked to increase employees’ awareness of how to make complaints. They can be made anonymously, and whenever a complaint is made, OSHA conducts an investigation of the company and work site. Over the last two years, the number of complaints in the state has tripled.
Employees have a right to refuse to do something they think is unsafe, Brooks said. If they are discriminated against for their refusal — whether it be a demotion or cut in hours — they have 30 days from the incident to report it to OSHA and launch an investigation.
Brooks said companies have 15 working days to respond to a citation for regular OSHA standards violations.
Citation levels include:
— Other than serious, which is not directly affecting worker safety or health and may include items like lack of recordkeeping.
— Potentially serious, which is based on the likelihood and severity of an incident happening and comes with up to $7,000 in fines per incident.
— Serious violations, which can be classified as wilful and come with a fine of up to $70,000 per incident or repeated with a fine double to 10 times the amount of the original penalty.
“Fines can add up to over $1 million in some instances,” Brooks said.
OSHA has issued $608,390 in fines since October 2011, Brooks said.
Nationwide, the average for a violation is now $2,819. It was less than $1,000 in 2010. For Bismarck, it’s $3,706.
“From 2010 to 2013 I’ve seen average penalties significantly increase,” Brooks said.
For fiscal year 2012, Brooks said the area OSHA office conducted 214 inspections with violations. Of those, 91.1 percent were rated serious or higher and carried an average penalty of $3,859.
For fiscal year 2013, 153 inspections were conducted, with 96.1 percent serious with one month left in the year and 63 open cases yet to process.
Companies can receive reductions in fines of up to
60 percent if they’re small businesses, and an additional 10 to 20 percent reduction for a clean history. Brooks said it is up to him whether a reduction is warranted and in cases of fatalities, he usually rules them out immediately. Fines collected go into the federal government’s general fund.
For families in the case of a fatality, Workforce Safety and Insurance covers any medical and funeral costs. The family also may be eligible for up to $300,000 worth of benefits, Jolliffe said.
Brooks said correcting the violated standard is most important in his decision-making. If he fines a company $20,000 for a rollover accident and it agrees to install rollover equipment on all machines, the fine may be reduced to $15,000.
“For $5,000, I’m getting several hundred for abatement,” he said.
Workforce Safety and Insurance also has incentives for companies to be safe. If a company has repeat injuries, premiums go up, Jolliffe said. For participating in the agency’s safety management program, a company can receive premium reductions up to 25 percent. Completing other designated safety actions can lead to further reductions.