Energy Ink: read the articles

Winter 2014

Safety by the Numbers
What Does the Data Say About Safety in the Energy Industry?

The Statistics by:
State, Rail, Oil & Gas, Mining, Wind Energy, Cranes and more

Safety by the Numbers

by State
The most dangerous States for employees
A strange coincidence appeared in the data in regards to Energy Ink’s three state coverage area.  As of 2011, North Dakota ranked as the most dangerous state for workers (of all occupations) in the nation.  The national fatality rate per 100,000 workers was 3.5.  North Dakota had a rate three and an half times that at 12.4   Second?  Wyoming with a rate of 11.6.  Third... Montana at 11.2.  The top three states just happen to be the three states we cover.  Though Alaska ranked a close fourth at 11.1, the rest of the 46 states in the nation don’t even reach double digits.

Certainly, states like Texas, with a rate of 4.0, have a large workforce in the construction and oil and gas industry, but their rate of fatalities per 100,000 workers is much lower because of the diversity of their workforce.  They have far more workers in safer occupations than do our three state area.  

North Dakota
The increases in Oil and Gas fatalities and injuries in Energy Ink’s three state coverage area paint an even more bleak picture.  OSHA reporting systems tend to combine job categories and thus report construction and extraction occupations as a single category, but it is obvious that in North Dakota, these occupations are now tied together.  Mining is also a tricky category as it includes occupations in the O/G industry as well as coal mining.  But again, the exploding accident numbers in ND are clearly being led by the Oil and Gas industry.  In 2007, 6 total fatalities were reported in these two categories (“construction & extraction” and “mining”).  In 2012, 49 total fatalities were reported - an increase of over 700% from 2007.  The total number of deaths on the job in North Dakota in 2012 was 68.  Thus, 72% of all deaths on the job in North Dakota were in occupations working the Bakken.  Workforce injury rates were not reported by OSHA for North Dakota.

Despite its “second worst” ranking in overall workplace fatalities, better news can be reported for Wyoming –the nation’s 3rd largest natural gas producing state.  In 2012, there were no reported deaths in the construction and extraction category and only 3 reported for mining – (none of these though occurred in coal mining and are thus attributed to O/G drilling occupations). In fact, Wyoming’s fatalities in these categories have dropped by 85% from a high of 19 in 2007.  Injury rates as reported by OSHA for the same period follow this decline.

Though Montana has not enjoyed the expansion in Oil and Gas that North Dakota has, it does still produce.  And again, despite rounding out the top three states with the highest fatality rate per 100,000 workers, Montana’s “construction and extraction occupation” fatality rates are also on the decline with a total of 5 reported with no mining deaths.  This represented a statistical decrease of 64% from the 14 total deaths in these categories in 2007.


Overall, the Association of American Railroads reports that 2012 was “the safest year on record for America’s freight railroads” in that “from 1980 to 2012, the train accident rate fell 80 percent, the rail employee injury rate fell 85 percent and the grade crossing collision rate fell 82 percent.” They further report that they have reduced employee casualty rates (injuries and deaths) by 84% since 1980 touting “railroads today have lower employee injury rates than most other major industries … even lower than grocery stores.”

Though Federal data certainly supports these numbers, it’s clear that the soaring increase in crude oil transport by rail has actually served as a lag on these impressive numbers.  The Wall Street Journal reported in April of 2013 that with the incredible increase of crude oil shipments from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to a monstrous 233,811 carloads in 2012, oil spills jumped in lockstep to 112 spills from 2010-2012 compared to 10 total spills in the three years previous.  But in all fairness, the percentages show a general decline in the total rate as shipment rates were up 2400% over 5 years (from 2008 to 2012) versus an estimated 5 year spill rate increase of 1860%.  Further, the AAR states that “95% of rail incidents involving crude oil were…non accident releases, and 70% of those incidents involved spills of less than 5 gallons.

The one negative, and a very ugly one at that, is though nationwide collisions of trains and motor vehicles have dropped 32% since 2006, in North Dakota, they’re up 67%.

Despite the fairly good news in the numbers, the mere fact that more rail accidents involving Bakken Crude Oil are happening is bringing both rail safety and the safety of the Bakken product itself into critical question.  Recently, in what Reuters news called “the most dramatic of its kind in the United States” since oil by train shipment began increasing in the recent decade, a unit train (carrying all of one product) of Bakken Crude derailed in Alabama, catching fire and exploding in a remote area.  No injuries were reported but the event reinvigorated a debate over oil by rail safety that was forced to the forefront by the horrendous Lac-Megantic derailment disaster which killed 47 people in Canada. (see story page 30).

Oil & Gas
The numbers
The oil and gas industry has rapidly become the most dangerous place to work in the United States.  The year 2012 saw record fatalities of 138, jumping 23% from 2011 where 112 workers died on the job.  This represents a fatality rate of 24.2 per 100,000 workers employed.  The next most dangerous jobs were in the agriculture, forestry, and commercial fishing and hunting industries with a rate of 21.2 per 100,000.  The national rate for all workers:  3.8.

In 2012, some 59,000 workers were employed as roustabouts alone (roustabout is the official term, “roughneck” is the slang, but they are one in the same - basically the people doing all the dirty work).  Add to this number dozens of specialized jobs along with every imaginable support service related to the industry and the total number of workers in the industry equalled about 570,000 in 2012 – an increase of 40% from 2007, compared to about 1% for all industries combined during the same period.

The Leading Cause
It seems common sense to assume that the leading cause of death in the oilfield would be “explosion” or “fire”.  Not so common.  What has plagued the industry for the last 10 years as the leading cause of death and injury among oil and gas workers is what “common sense” might see as being easily preventable:  Transportation accidents. 

The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) conducted an exhaustive study on the six year period between 2003 and 2008 where they found that 29.3% of the 648 deaths of reported O/G workers were due to traffic accidents. In all of these accidents, only 11.9% of victims were wearing a seatbelt.  Pickup trucks accounted for a little over half of those wrecks while 26.7% were attributed to large trucks. 

These numbers have persisted into the decade. For extraction workers alone (excluding all other job descriptions), of the 86 reported deaths in 2012, 23 (26.7%) were due to transportation accidents, 15 (17.4%) from falls trip or slips, and 22 (25.5%) were killed having been struck by an object or equipment.  The percentages for North Dakota though are far worse.  Of the 49 deaths reported under the categories of “Construction & Extraction”, and “Mining”, 34 were traffic related – 69.3%.

Worse, it’s obvious in the numbers that nationally speaking, oil and gas workers are not taking the simple preventative measure of wearing a seat belt. 

Inside the Traffic
Though the NIOSH study data is five years old, the report’s conclusions still apply. The most common causes of oil field worker traffic fatalities were fatigue and distracted driving.  The physical demands of the job, long shifts (day after day), coupled with often long drive times prior to punching the clock combine to explain these underlying conditions. Of traffic deaths during the 2003-2008 period, roughly 56% were single vehicle accidents as a result of driver error.  Another 21% were head-on collisions mostly from drifting across lanes.

The reasons for lack of seat belt use are varied and perhaps obvious, but it should be noted that State governments aren’t reacting to the lack of regard for the law, and safety.  In each state of our coverage area- North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana - a driver can only be ticketed for a seat belt violation if they are pulled over for another offense – referred to as “Secondary Seat Belt Laws”. 

Though Americans often don’t want more government regulation and oversight, it can’t be ignored that “during the first full year after enforcement of belt laws, fatality rates dropped 21% in five primary states” (States that had Primary Seat Belt Laws – where cops can pull over a vehicle for seat belt violations alone) compared to only 7 percent in 11 secondary law states.

And it is obvious where these traffic accidents are taking place – the Bakken.  As of April 12, 2013, 28% of all highway fatalities in North Dakota occurred in McKenzie County, home to Watford City, according to a report in “Bakken Today.” The population of the county represents only 1.5% of the total population of North Dakota. 

By state, of the total number of 2012 worker fatalities in all occupations:
47.5% of the 40 Montana worker fatalities,
48.5% of the 35 Wyoming worker fatalities, and
60.9% of the 64 North Dakota worker fatalities,
were motor vehicle related.

OSHA has an extensive database of work related injuries and fatalities in all occupations on record.  With few exceptions, every single state has complete reports on file dating back to at least 2003.  One of those exceptions is North Dakota.  Their work related injury reports are simply not available.  Why is not clear.  But what seems evident is that the number of non-fatal injury causing accidents are of course, happening at an increasingly higher rate. 

The few numbers that could be found included a report from the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources indicating that there were 23 well blowouts in the past year.  Also discovered were numbers from one source in one county in North Dakota.  The McKenzie County Hospital in Watford, a 60 year old facility with one emergency room, saw emergency room visits rise from a 100 per month average in 2010 to a 400 per month average in 2012. Traumatic injuries jumped 200% from 2007 through mid 2012. 

Further, workers’ comp claims have risen by nearly 600% among North Dakota’s oil and gas truckers and have more than quadrupled for gas and oil workers as a whole from 2007 to 2012.

Fatal injuries in mining rose nationwide by 9%.  But the simple facts are that underground mining incidents greatly skew the national numbers for a few reasons.  The first reason is the obvious more dangerous nature of underground mining.  The second problem with these numbers is that of the impact of an accident.  Typically, accidents in most occupations affect only one or two workers per incident.  The same can be said about surface mining accidents.  But underground mining accidents occasionally take the lives of more than one, and in some cases, dozens of workers.  Thus, the raw data of numbers of fatalities do not reflect the general trend of worker safety in mining.  For example, the total number of fatalities in 2010 spiked by 160% with the deaths of 29 West Virginia underground coal miners in April of that year. The number of fatalities in 2009 were 18 and in 2011 were 21.  This is not to say such multiple fatality events aren’t in and of themselves a critical indicator of mine safety issues, it is simply indicating that data tracking by fatalities, as has been done for other occupations in this article, is a method that is not reliable.  When adjusting for multiple fatality events however, the total incidents of fatal mining accidents is on the decline nationwide with a national total of 19 in 2013 (as of December 1st) compared to 30 in 2003. This represents fully one third fewer fatalities than the annual average of 28.8. (There were a total of 317 deaths in the coal mining industry between 2003 and 2013.)

But our focus is most certainly on our region’s mine safety issues.  In that regard, from a fatality counting perspective, coal mining operations in all three states of our coverage region appear to reveal that being a miner in Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana, is a relatively safe occupation.  Having been in the business for decades, operations in these states seem to have a handle of safety precautions and procedures.  Only one direct mining activity death was reported in Wyoming in 2013 (as of December 1st) and none in 2012.  That accident in 2013 occurred in August when, according to the official OSHA report, “a 24-year-old utility person with nearly 3 years of mining experience was killed when the Ford F350 utility pickup truck he was driving was crushed by a P&H 2800 electric shovel. A bulldozer and two pickup trucks were following the shovel while traveling up a grade (approximately 9%). The shovel rolled backward down the grade and hit the bulldozer and the two trucks. The driver of the first truck was killed, and the driver of the second truck sustained injuries and was transported to the hospital.

Wyoming has had only 5 total fatalities directly related to coal mining occupations since 2003, according to OSHA data. By comparison, West Virginia, which led the nation in mining accidents, had a total of 117 fatalities between 2003 and 2012.

Montana has faired even better with only two reported mining related fatalities since 2006, one of which, according to the official OSHA report, occurred in 2006, when “a 50-year old haul truck operator, was fatally injured [after dumping] a load of coal waste material from a Caterpillar 789B haul truck he was driving in the Pit and called on the radio to report that the parking brakes on the truck would not release. A mechanic responded and found the truck resting against a berm with the bed up and the engine running. [The worker] was found crushed beneath the left rear dual tires.

OSHA’s always right?
There are two commonalities that continue to pop up in all this data.  First, a majority of worker fatalities and injuries are caused by the workers themselves.  Careless behavior, whether from fatigue, over-confidence, or simple neglect, are often the culprit.  The second common feature of nearly every accident researched is that despite the fact that “operator error” was the determining cause, OSHA almost always found fault in the company.  For instance, in the case where a mining haul truck operator was crushed beneath his own vehicle after apparently attempting to fix a stuck parking brake, OSHA cited the company for failure to “have effective maintenance procedures to ensure that water was drained from and not allowed to accumulate in the air tank/system and caused the freezing problem that was experienced at the time of the accident when the parking brakes would not release.” From an official stand point then, it was the company’s fault. This theme repeats itself time and again in energy accidents which tends to lead the public at large to believe that the energy industry as a whole is to blame for lax standards.   

In some cases, the company truly is to blame.  In most cases, it is simple human error.  But it should be said that human error, especially in the fast paced “get paid” environment of the Bakken, can be driven by a company’s culture in demanding on-time delivery of services.  Incentivizing production rather than safety furthers this culture.                                       

Wind Energy
Still a growing yet small segment of the energy industry, the few statistics available show that only 12 fatalities occurred – worldwide – in wind energy related occupations in 2012.  Most of these occurred during the construction of turbines. In 2011, it was reported that accidents involving wind turbines though tripled over the past decade.  Falls, crushed by gear, and electrical failures were the leading causes of injury.  The British have done a more thorough job of reporting rates of failure and injury to both workers and the public in regard to wind energy.  In one report, they list the top four causes of “accidents” - whether non-injury or not - as being blade failure, fire, structural failure, and ice throw - where blocks of ice formed during inoperation are thrown hundreds of yard upon start up. 

Cranes and energy work go hand in hand. The difference between this sub industry and all others is that accidents are a business killer.  The “Total Recordable Incident Rate” (TRIR, aka the OSHA Recordable Rate) is a measure used by insurance providers to determine the safety performance of a company.  The lower the number, the better.  A minimum of 1.00 is usually required to be considered for doing work in the mining and the oil and gas industries.

Though 2012 numbers were unavailable, it was reported by the Crane Inspection and Certification Board (CICB) that “crane related injuries are on the rise.“  On average “80 lift and material handling equipment workers are killed each year.”  Their 2011 report also concluded that “90% of crane accidents occur due to human error” with “80% of all crane upsets attributed to operators exceeding the crane’s operational capacity”.  Of the annual accidents, “45% of all mobile crane accidents involve electrocution that results from the crane contacting a power source during operation.” Another 40% of injuries and deaths were a result of being struck by the crane load or the crane itself.  Further, “50% of U.S. crane accidents that had injuries in 2009 resulted in fatalities.”  Mobile cranes, clearly the most used in the energy industry, have the highest rate of workplace-injury with some reports indicating that they are responsible for 75% of all crane accidents. 

Energy Ink has dedicated a separate article on trucking data in the article “The Dangerous Business of Trucking.”  (Please see page 20).

Does Age Matter?
With increased production and an aging workforce in areas other than the Bakken - which historically attracts younger workers - the estimated increase in needed employees for
the industry as a whole looks good.  But with increased employment comes increased safety concerns.  The fear is that new workers lacking experience are more likely to engage in less than safe practices. 

But is this true?  Today’s workforce is most certainly better trained than when their seasoned older counter parts were first hired.  In an interview with National Public Radio for instance,  Mark Denkowski, Vice President of Accreditation and Certification at the International Association of Drilling Contractors, indicated that the new style of “extensive safety briefings and long training programs” is a far cry from thirty years ago when he says, “It was literally, ‘Here’s your hard hat, here’s some safety equipment, and go to work’”. 

In fact, the numbers are very telling.  The young guys aren’t as careless as you might think.  At least in speaking to all occupations, older workers are more likely to die in a work related accident than their younger counter parts.

The Financial Side
Needless to say, the terrible cost of a fatality is most severely felt by the family of the worker.  But the costs to a company where a worker is injured or killed is worth discussing, if not for the purpose of motivating the dire need for safety training and precautions on their jobsites.  Beyond the obvious OSHA fines that will follow regardless of the cause of the accident, increased insurance rates tend to immediately follow an incident.  And often, a lawsuit filed by the family will follow a fatality or severe injury, again, regardless of blame.  The costs of defending against such lawsuits are difficult to place an average on, but clearly, even if the company successfully defends against the suit, attorney’s fees add up.  If the suit is lost, the financial burden to the company can be staggering.  Legal issues and OSHA fines aside, the average slip, trip, or fall injury costs an average of $140,000 to an oil and gas company in direct and indirect costs, according to Ed Powers, General Manager Global Operations, American Medical Response (AMR) Onsite Safety and Health.  Whether in training or in consequences, as Mr. Powers puts it “Safety comes with a cost.

What’s the Point

Why detail all these numbers?  Data can serve as a wake up call to both employees and employers. By laying out all the facts and figures, the hope is that the dangerous nature of these occupations become more of a reality to those in the field.  Workers are certainly aware of the dangerous business they are engaged in, but it is easy to forget just how close to injury or death they are when putting in hour after hour, day after day, at an accident free job.  The delusion is easy to settle into after perhaps years of dodging the bullet especially when it seems it’s always “the other poor guy” that will feel that sort of pain.  But all it takes is one bad decision on one overworked day for the pain to visit home.  Take safety training seriously – pay attention at the briefings, pay attention on the job.  Losing everything you have, “or ever will have” is not just a line from a movie. Mr. Powers puts it just as succinctly, “Never underestimate the importance of safety – peoples lives depend on it.

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By Eric Sharpe, Editor, Energy Ink Magazine. January 1st, 2014.


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