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North Dakota’s very own grim reaper

Editorial | April 24th, 2014

Our Opinion/ If our governor and state leaders do not see this as urgent, they need to take their blinders off

Yet another reason for the Governor to call a special legislative session is the growing evidence that North Dakota is by far the most dangerous state in the country to work. A related special report by HPR’s Chris Hennen this week documents this grim fact. Yet, workplace deaths are only the tip of the iceberg, something like the canary in the coal mine. We cannot sit by idly and wait for our state leadership to take action to manage the oil boom that’s been unleashed like a tsunami on the people, the environment, the culture, the fundamental infrastructure of North Dakota.

So, indeed, we can tout until we are blue in the face that others report that North Dakotans are the happiest people in the country. Well, whoop-de-doo. And we can brag all we want about having more employed per capita than anyone else, or that we are the fast growing workforce, or that our population is growing in leaps and bounds.

Try telling that good news to a mom of two kids whose 26-year-old husband just died in the state on the job. Try telling that father’s children that life is good here and that the Oil Boom is a godsend. Try telling that man’s mom and dad, brothers and sisters that it’s all good, that this is simply a byproduct of exponential energy development and that stuff happens, or that it’s a coincidence, albeit unfortunate, a statistic.

The national AFL-CIO report referenced in Hennen’s article shows a disturbing – a deadly – trend. Our workplace death rate is over five times the national average. Our jobsite deaths have nearly skyrocketed from 30 in 2010 to 64 in 2012. The national average is 3.2 jobsite deaths per 100,000 people. North Dakota’s is 16.7. Mind you, these statistics are two years old, and reflect back on the earlier years of the boom.

Drilling further, a horribly disturbing fact reveals that 12 out of 64 workplace fatalities in 2012 were Latino workers. That is 18.75 percent of the fatalities in a state where the Latino population was 2.6 percent. In 2011, it that group was 28 percent of the total fatalities.

Workforce death and injury claims in North Dakota are another trend to study and to address. In August, 2009, we had 13,800 employees working in the oil industry and there were 690 claims filed. By November 2012, there were 62,600 oil industry employees and the claims rate had jumped to 2,900. By December 2013, our filed claims escalated to 3,200. The claims rate is outpacing the jobs growth rate, and it’s our workers paying the price, sometimes with their lives.

If our governor and state leaders do not see this as urgent, they need to take their blinders off. People’s lives depend on their action. And you can assume that the cost of inaction is death and injury in numbers higher than anyone’s ever imagined.

Add to this deadly mix the number of people killed and injured on roadways in the Oil Patch. Or add to the formula the crimes committed against people, violent and property. Or add to it the fact that our own citizens, many who are seniors or disabled or veterans of war who cannot afford to pay rent, or to pay property taxes, particularly in northwestern North Dakota. Or add to it the lack of security, the fear and reality of not being safe doing something as simple as going to a grocery store, or the worries of sending your kids out to the park or even to school.

HPR began reporting on the disturbing trends evidenced in the jobsite death reports back in 2008, before the Oil Boom. This was a problem then. Now it’s monumental and we do not say that in a good way.

Our coverage had been triggered by an acquaintance in the contracting and construction field who emotionally relayed to this writer how angry he was that a young man he knew – and yes, mid-20s, married and a father of two children, if we recall – had died on the jobsite. He said the media and government would report it as an accident, of course, and that then there would be a fine assessed the contracting company, but that would be cut in half months later like many of the others. He said that that dead worker would have been alive had his employer implemented any one of the five required safety requirements but that the employer was cutting corners and simply did not give a damn about his employees, and that the government would not care much more and that the media would parrot it as an accident where in reality it was negligence.

Coming to mind are the stories of North Dakota leaders who championed causes such as fighting drunk driving after death and injury touched them or family members personally. Is that really what it’s going to take to get our state to get on top of this deadly path we and our workers are on? Can’t they act otherwise because it’s the right thing to do and it’s incumbent on them to protect and serve the people?

Please, people, do not contain your anger and disappointment when confronted with this horrific information? Do not bury your heads in the sand, or turn the other cheek. Do not tout how happy we are and how blessed we are when others are grieving deaths on the jobsite in unprecedented numbers, or are standing bedside next to family members fighting for their very next breath of life because they were the next unfortunate statistic.

We implore you to demand change and to require it of those you’ve elected to represent you in government. Lives depend on it. Far too many, in fact.

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