On-The-Job Deaths Spiking As Oil Drilling Quickly Expands

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Blue-collar workers, hit hard by automation and factory offshoring, have been struggling to find high-paying jobs.

One industry does offer opportunity: As baby boomers retire and drilling increases, oil and gas companies are hiring. They added between 2009 and 2012.

But the hiring spree has come with a terrible price: Last year, 138 workers were killed on the job - an increase of more than 100 percent since 2009.

In fact, the fatality rate among oil and gas workers is now nearly than the all-industry rate of for every 100,000 workers.

The spike in deaths may reflect the inexperience of the workforce, as well as worker exhaustion and other factors, experts say.

"During times of high demand like now, there are new workers brought into this industry, and these are workers that may not have relevant training and experience," says Ryan Hill, who heads the oil and gas extraction program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "They didn't grow up around the industry, especially in some of the newer oil fields."

Hill says the tough working conditions add to the dangers.

"Workers in this industry typically work 12- to 14-hour shifts for a week or two consecutively. The type of work that workers do often requires performing repetitive and physical labor."

And none of that is happening in an air-conditioned office. "Much of the work that goes on in the industry is done outdoors regardless of the weather," Hill says.
A train leaves the Rangeland Energy company's crude oil loading terminal near Epping, N.D. So far this year, 60 percent of all oil produced in North Dakota left the state by rail. One economist says there aren't enough oil tankers to fill the demand.

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report saying oil and gas extraction deaths hit the highest level in 2012 since the government began compiling that data in 2003.

"Job gains in oil and gas and construction have come with more fatalities, and that is unacceptable," Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said . "No worker should lose their life for a paycheck."

But those deaths can rise with hiring binges in the energy sector. In 2006, when the economy was strong and oil prices were soaring, energy companies started hiring rapidly, increasing the workforce by roughly .

Amid that rush of new, inexperienced workers, deaths spiked nearly 28 percent to 125 for the year, up from 98 deaths in 2005.

One of the people killed in 2006 was Chuck Lindstrom. The 57-year-old mechanic was working in the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota. He repaired pump jacks - those horse-headed machines used to draw crude oil out of the ground.

On a hot day in mid-August, Lindstrom phoned his wife to tell her he'd been called out on a job and would be home for lunch. But when the sun set that evening, Lindstrom still wasn't home.

His son, Cody Lindstrom, described what happened next when his mother checked with the company about her missing husband. "They began looking, and eventually by around 11:30 at night, the sheriff was contacted, and that's when they went out to the site and they found his truck there," he says.

Cody Lindstrom says his father climbed inside a safety fence around the pump jack to make his repairs. He'd just finished his work when the pump jack started up.

Continue reading this NPR.org story here.