Workers’ Memorial Day: North Dakota deadliest state in US


Tyler Erickson was a floor hand with Heller Casing in Williston, North Dakota, from 2012 until 2014. He specialised in maintaining the casing, which would be lowered into drill holes in what back then were the state’s booming oil fields. Accidents, he says, were a regular occurrence.

“People getting their fingers jammed between joints of pipes,” Tyler, now a law student, tells Equal Times. He was among part-time workers who didn’t attend regular safety classes like the employees who were full-time. “People would slip and fall sometimes on the top of pipes.”

That’s the least of it. North Dakota last year was the most dangerous U.S. state to work in, and had been for three years running, according to the 2015 AFL-CIO Death on the Job Report.

Marking Workers’ Memorial Day this Thursday, trade unions around the world renew their annual call to “remember the dead: fight for the living.” This year’s theme is "Strong Laws - Strong enforcement - Strong Unions." 

North Dakota suffered 14.9 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2015 alone, far ahead of Wyoming with 9.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. While North Dakota’s casualty numbers are down from 2012 (17.7 per 100,000 workers) the state continues to stand apart.

The rise in deaths on the job began growing as more and more workers moved to the Bakken region in search of job opportunities. The Bakken – a large geological layer containing significant oil deposits – covers a quarter of the state of North Dakota, extending up into Canada and as far west as Montana.

One reason blamed for the deaths is a lack of oversight. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is severely understaffed. In 2015 OSHA employed a total of 1,882 inspectors to inspect 8 million workplaces under their jurisdiction.

According to the AFL-CIO report, this means workplaces monitored by OSHA can be adequately inspected only once every 140 years.

Settled within the Bakken is Williams County, home to Williston, a boomtown which houses the majority of the workers commuting into the area searching for work. The sudden influx of workers quickly filled local hotels and apartments, which increased the need for housing to accommodate the workers moving into the area.

These areas – or “man camps” – were of great interest to a University of North Dakota (UND) professor, who has been researching the man camps for quite some time.

William Caraher is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at UND, as well as the Co-PI on the North Dakota Man Camp Project. “Crew camps” are maintained by large corporations such as Target Logistics, who transport modular homes on trains into the area.

“I don’t think they’re happy places, in the sense that they’re modular rooming quarters,” he tells Equal Times. “They remind me a little bit of some sort of science fiction dormitory. …long hallways with tubes coming off them with rooms on either side.”

“Squatter camps” were especially well-known in 2008, when the oil boom began to take off and workers began flooding the area. Some workers were unofficially living on the job sites with no sewage or water hook-ups. Their electrical needs were met by running long extension cords from a site’s generator to their areas.

While living conditions were difficult for some, the work involved was often dangerous. Workers performed tasks that ranged from fitting drill bits with casings to ensure a clean path for the drill, to more specialized tasks like “fishing,” or an individual who’s job was to remove items that fell into the bore holes made by drills.

The sudden influx of workers to sustain the extraction of oil from the Bakken led to increased amounts of deaths in the area. According to OSHA, more than half of the worker deaths in North Dakota were of workers involved in the oil and gas industry.

According to a 2010 U.S. Census demographic profile, the population of Williams County, North Dakota was 22,398. The Census estimates the population grew to 35,295 by 2015. Migrant workers commuted from states as far as Texas and Oklahoma to perform various tasks.

Since the drilling has ceased in the area due to plunging oil prices, the workers directly associated to the oil companies have left the state, leaving the town of Williston over-built and in debt.

While the amount of worker deaths on the job should decrease due to the workers leaving the area, the trend shown in North Dakota is likely to repeat itself if another oil boom ever arises once more.

The AFL-CIO report notes progress nationwide - that more than a half-million workers’ lives were saved thanks to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 – there remain a lot more lives to save. Namely, the 12 workers on average who die every day in the United States alone.