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Workplaces deaths down in North Dakota, spike in Minnesota

Construction workers ascend scaffolding at the site of the new First International Bank and Trust building in Bismarck Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Workplace deaths in North Dakota dipped to their lowest level in seven years in 2016, as Minnesota saw a spike in fatal incidents that year.

North Dakota's 28 fatal injuries in 2016 were roughly in line with yearly totals before the surge in work brought on by the Bakken oil boom, according to figures released recently by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2012, workplace deaths peaked at 65.

"During the peak years of the oil boom, there was just so much more activity going on, and some of it in dangerous arenas," said Russ Hanson, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of North Dakota. "Safety is something that all of the industry stakeholders in North Dakota take very seriously."

North Dakota AFL-CIO President Waylon Hedegaard said workers in the oil field are better-trained today "because so many of the untrained workers that that we had to rely on when the boom was at its max don't have to be there."

Hedegaard pointed to a report released last year, based on 2015 figures, that showed North Dakota had the highest rate of workplace fatalities in the country, clocking in at 12.5 per 100,000 workers. The national rate was 3.4 per 100,000 workers, according to the AFL-CIO report that used federal figures, and Minnesota's rate was 2.7.

The AFL-CIO has not yet released the annual report using 2016 figures. Nationally, the number of worker deaths increased by 7 percent in 2016 to 5,190, according to federal data.

Dave Schweigert, a Bismarck attorney who has represented oil field workers and businesses, said the process of drilling wells has become safer.

"And then also the speed isn't there because they're not having to chase leases like they were doing," he said. "You're not seeing a lot of that push."

The number of North Dakota deaths in the industry category that includes oil and gas extraction totaled four in 2016, down from 15 in 2012. There were no deaths listed in 2016's construction industry category, which accounted for 25 deaths in 2012.

Meanwhile in Minnesota, there were 92 workplace deaths in 2016, the highest in two decades. The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry noted that transportation incidents accounted for half of those fatalities.

"The issue here is being safe on the roadways," department spokesman James Honerman said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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