WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota continues to have the highest worker death rate in the country, with 17.7 fatalities per 100,000 employees in 2012, the nation's largest labor federation said Wednesday.
The 2012 rate is a dramatic increase from the 7 deaths per 100,000 workers recorded in 2007 before the state's oil and economic boom took off.
The data comes from an AFL-CIO report slated to be released next week and included in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday. In the statement, the AFL-CIO said North Dakota's 2012 rate is one of the highest it has observed since the federation began issuing reports on worker fatalities more than 20 years ago.
North Dakota also had the highest worker fatality rate in the nation in 2011, with 12.4 deaths per 100,000 employees that year. The national worker fatality rate was 3.5 deaths per 100,000 employees in 2011.
AFL-CIO said other states with that showed high worker fatality rates in 2012 include Wyoming, Alaska, West Virginia and South Dakota.
North Dakota's spiking worker fatality rate in recent years coincides with the state's oil boom, which has attracted tens of thousands of workers, made Williston the fastest-growing micropolitan area in the nation and given the state the lowest unemployment rate in the country
North Dakota has become the second-biggest producer of oil in the U.S. and anticipates producing 1 million barrels of oil per day by June. But unfavorable superlatives — such as the highest rate of worker deaths and towns with most expensive rents in the nation — have followed as well.
Eric Brooks, director at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Bismarck office, said about half of workplace fatalities his office investigates involve the oil industry.
But despite the AFL-CIO figures, the overall trend of employers — especially oil companies — has been toward safety, said Brooks.
"The culture has changed toward a more 'safety first' type of environment," said Brooks.
He noted that when North Dakota's oil boom got going half a decade ago, fire resistant clothing was rarely used. Now, he said, the clothing is now required and can be bought even at convenience stores.
OSHA, which is the federal agency responsible for enforcing safety and health legislation, has just eight compliance officers to cover the Dakotas, an area of nearly 150,000 square miles.
The most recent reported workplace death in North Dakota was Zach Buckles, a 20-year-old oil worker from Glasgow, Mont., who was found dead on a well pad several miles south of Williston.
Buckles was found unresponsive Monday morning at a Continental Resources well. He worked for Black Gold Testers, which had a contract to do work for Continental Resources.
Rebecca Buckles, the man's grandmother, said the family got word of his death from a friend who was at the site with him. Eventually, relatives called their local sheriff's department in Glasgow, who put them in touch with authorities in North Dakota.
The grandmother said that while nothing was concluded by an autopsy conducted on Tuesday, it is being assumed that her grandson died from inhaling gas.