WORKER SAFETY:

Oil and gas deaths reached record high in 2012

The oil and gas industry lost a record number of workers on the job last year, according to new preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fatalities for the industry jumped from 112 in 2011 to 138 in 2012, a 23 percent increase and the largest number of deaths of oil and gas workers since the current data series for the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) began in 2003. The bureau reported an oil and gas fatality rate of 24.2 deaths per 100,000 workers. That's higher than the 21.2 reported by the notoriously dangerous agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector.

The oil and gas fatality rate is 7.6 times higher than the all-industry rate of 3.2 deaths per 100,000 workers.

"[T]o me, these aren't just numbers and data -- they are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, who will never come home again," Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a statement. "Job gains in oil and gas and construction have come with more fatalities, and that is unacceptable. ... Employers must take job hazards seriously and live up to their legal and moral obligation to send their workers home safe every single day. The Labor Department is committed to preventing these needless deaths, and we will continue to engage with employers to make sure that these fatality numbers go down further."

Through its Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Labor Department has initiated safety sweeps and stand-downs at drill sites. In February, OSHA partnered with the Montana-North Dakota chapter of the National Service, Transmission, Exploration and Production Safety Network to inspect wells in the Bakken Shale (EnergyWire, April 29). North Dakota, the state at the center of the Bakken boom, had the highest fatality rate in the nation in 2011 (EnergyWire, May 10).

BLS has yet to release detailed state fatality data for 2012, but a map in the CFOI release shows that North Dakota is one of 16 states that had an increase in worker deaths last year. Texas, another energy-rich state, had 531 worker deaths, the most of any state in 2012.

Sixteen percent of all fatal injuries were incurred by contract workers, 54 percent of whom were working in construction and extraction jobs when they were killed, according to the BLS data.

Julia Bell, spokeswoman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said the spike in oil and gas fatalities may be due to the industry's rapid growth. She cited a report published earlier this month by the Energy Information Administration that found energy jobs were growing faster than the entire U.S. private sector (EnergyWire, Aug. 9).

"When industries expand rapidly, there are, tragically, incidents that also occur," she said.

AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario called for a deep examination of the oil and gas industry and its specific hazards and problems. She said there needs to be an investigation to find out whether certain employers and contractors are putting their workers in precarious situations.

While OSHA and its research partner, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, would be the obvious leaders of such a probe, Seminario said there might be a need for an industry-specific oversight body in the spirit of the Mining Safety and Health Administration.

Under MSHA's watch, the mining sector, which encompasses the oil and gas industry, has seen its fatality rate decrease from 19.8 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2010 to 15.1 in 2012, according to BLS numbers.

Strapped for resources, OSHA hasn't been able to rein in oil and gas fatalities with the same degree of success, Seminario said.

In November, OSHA is embarking on another safety stand-down with U.S. onshore exploration and production companies, Perez said.

"No worker should lose their life for a paycheck," he said.

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