Oil and gas extraction workers have one of the highest on-the-job death rates in the country, with pipeline construction workers dying on the job 3.6 times more often than the average worker, according to a new report published in Pacific Standard Magazine.
In Antonia Juhasz’s report, “Death on the Dakota Access; An investigation into the deadly business of building oil and gas pipelines,” the journalist discovered that deaths among oil and natural gas pipeline construction were only recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BSL) beginning in 2003. And the bureau never produced a fatality rate for these workers for public access.
BLS couldn’t provide the fatality rate report, “So I decided to do it myself,” Juhasz told WESA. “And with the guidance of the BLS, I constructed my own dataset, using their data on fatalities and on employment in oil and natural gas pipeline construction.”
Juhasz found that in 2016, workers in this field had a fatality rate 3.6 higher than the average worker. Other years, the rate was as high as 7 times above average. Some of the deaths were quite gruesome, involving workers being crushed by thousand-plus-pound pipes, or burned in explosions.
In some cases, Juhasz had to dig for information about potential work-related deaths. In one case along the Dakota Access Pipeline, a worker’s tractor jammed. When he got out to fix it, blades used to till the ground dislodged and struck him in the skull. He wasn’t found right away, and ultimately died from a skull fracture.
Three days later, at the other end of the pipeline, a worker suffering from heat stroke moving heavy equipment apparently sought shade under a truck used to move massive pieces of equipment. The driver of the truck moved it without realizing the man was under it, ultimately crushing the heat stroke victim to death.
Oil and natural gas companies avoid fines and other penalties when their workers remain safe, so it is in their best interest to protect them. “But unfortunately, this distance between the parent company and actual employer really creates a sense of, ‘It’s not our watch,’” Juhasz found. Oftentimes, he said, it is the unions that are providing more training and oversight than the average worker, resulting in more accountability between employee and worker.
However, unions are not a guarantee of safety. The aforementioned workers killed while working on the Dakota Access Pipeline were members of unions, Juhasz said. “And they still suffered these fatalities.”