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Building oil and gas pipelines can be dangerous work. And the fatality rate on the job reflects that. For the last 10 years, oil and gas extraction workers have had one of the highest fatality rates in the nation. In 2016, pipeline construction workers died on the job 3.6 times more often than the average American worker.

The safety of the workers who build and maintain pipelines is the subject of an article by journalist Antonia Juhasz in the latest issue of Pacific Standard Magazine. It’s called “Death on the Dakota Access; An investigation into the deadly business of building oil and gas pipelines.”

Kara Holsopple spoke with Juhasz recently to learn more.

Kara Holsopple: Through your investigation and reporting, you found that oil and gas pipeline workers had a higher fatality rate than the average American worker. Tell me about the numbers and where the data came from.

Antonia Juhasz:  I didn’t actually even set out to write an investigation about oil pipeline safety, but when I discovered that one worker, Nicholas Janesich, had died building the Dakota Access Pipeline, and I saw a brief report of it by the North Dakota Associated Press, I decided to look more deeply into what caused his death, and then to ask this question of overall safety and security.

What I found out was that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the standard set of information that we use for understanding the fatality rates associated with different industries in the United States, only started reporting deaths in oil and natural gas pipeline construction in 2003. And they have never produced, publicly, a fatality rate for oil and natural gas pipeline construction.

So I spoke with BLS, and tried to understand why they hadn’t run this information. They didn’t really have an answer for me. They weren’t planning on doing it, and I couldn’t convince them to do it. So, I decided to do it myself. And with the guidance of the BLS, I constructed my own dataset, using their data on fatalities and on employment in oil and natural gas pipeline construction.

What I came up with is, oil and gas pipeline construction workers having a fatality rate in 2016 that was 3.6 times the national average for the average American worker. And that it has reached highs of 7 times the average rate, and since 2003 has averaged 4.3 times the fatality rate for the average American worker.

LISTEN: “The Dangerous Work of Building Pipelines”

KH: You write about some of the really gruesome ways that pipeline workers have been killed: crushed by pipes weighing thousands of pounds, burned in explosions. You mentioned the worker who died during the Dakota Access Pipeline construction, Nicholas Janesich, and another worker who died during the construction of that pipeline. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened to them?

AJ: Nicholas Janesich’s death, which happened in August 2016, was reported by the Associated Press, but there were not very many details. So I did a Freedom of Information Act request, interviewed a sheriff and other local parties.

There were no witnesses to his death because, as fracking has brought production into much more rural areas, workers are working far apart from each other, and far apart from any sort of major city center. And so Janesich was working alone, essentially, out near where the Dakota Access Pipeline starts. He had never worked on pipeline construction before, and was only three weeks into the job. He was driving a tractor. Pipe was already in the ground; the earth was returned above it; and he was re-tilling the land using something called a ripper to allow vegetation to grow there again. The tractor he was working on had been altered. It jammed. He got out to fix it himself. He probably should have waited for a foreman to get a professional to fix it, but he jammed a crowbar into the ripper. And these blades that are used to till the ground, dislodged and struck him in the skull.

He made his way back into the tractor and was randomly found by his foreman who happened to be driving another worker to another tractor site. He was taken to this tiny hospital in Tioga, then airlifted to a somewhat larger city, and he died from a from a skull fracture less than 24 hours after being injured.

Just three days later, at the other end of the pipeline in Illinois, another worker who was working on the pipeline, Troy Dolen, was also killed. His death had not been reported as associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline until I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and started digging. And his death was exceptionally avoidable. He had been suffering from heat stroke all day, moving heavy equipment around. He seemed to have sought out shade under a truck, which is used to haul these massive pieces of equipment, and he must’ve fallen asleep or potentially passed out. The driver of the truck moved the truck not knowing he was under it and crushed him to death killing him.

KH: Who is looking out for these workers? What are the regulations?

AJ: In some cases, oil and gas extraction workers have even higher fatality rates and more dangerous jobs than coal workers. And there are many potential reasons for that, but they include that even though oil and gas extraction and pipeline construction are considered part of the mining sector by the federal government, they are not subject to the more stringent Mining Health and Safety Act which requires inspections of sites whether or not there has been a reported problem, a death, or an injury. It’s considered a high-hazard industry, and has much more enforceable regulations. Even though oil and natural gas extraction and pipeline construction have among the highest fatality rates in the nation, both sectors fall under the regular Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), and it’s less stringent safety requirements. In fact, in the previous six months before Janesich’s death, OSHA had not inspected a single part of the Dakota Access Pipeline at all. And one reason for that is how few OSHA inspectors there are–there are only eight in the entire state of North Dakota–and the AFL-CIO has found that it would take OSHA 100 years to inspect every job site in North Dakota just once. And these sectors–oil and gas and pipeline construction–are considered low-hazard industries, which means that they are subject to less stringent OSHA oversight. That was already the condition going into the Trump administration.

“Five thousand dollars is not a lot of money to pay when a worker dies.”

So, for example, right now there is no OSHA administrator under the Trump administration. It has significantly lost staff including inspectors, and the Trump administration has eliminated and failed to enforce a number of Obama-era regulations that were geared at making these sectors more safe. The Trump administration has also rolled back reporting requirements, including what information needs to be made publicly available in terms of injuries and fatalities gathered from the companies.

KH: Don’t these companies have an interest in making sure as few of these accidents happen as possible?

AJ: The companies certainly do. But unfortunately, this distance between the parent company and the actual employer really creates a sense of, “It’s not on our watch.” Because the ultimate parent company isn’t being held liable or accountable. Unions are definitely trying. I ran the numbers, and workers who are reported to be members of unions by a OSHA and it’s public reporting data are significantly less likely to have suffered fatalities than those who are not in unions. So the unions are providing more training than the average worker. They’re providing more oversight than the average worker, and more accountability between employee and company. That said, both Dolen and Janesich were members of unions, and they still suffered these fatalities. 

There still is a great deal of lack of appropriate oversight and enforcement over the companies, and I do think one of the place to look at that is who gets held accountable, and to what standard. OSHA had initially held in Janesich’s case, had considered this a serious violation with a fine of $8,873, which believe it or not is actually a high fine coming from OSHA. That was then downgraded and negotiated down with the company to quote, “less than serious.” And then just this $5,000 fine. Five thousand dollars is not a lot of money to pay when a worker dies. And I think if that’s going to be the case, if there is weak and lax enforcement, then it makes it much easier to treat these workers lives without the appropriate care and concern for their safety and health.

KH: Is there a difference between building an oil pipeline, like the Dakota Access Pipeline, versus a gas transmission line like the ones we have here in Pennsylvania?

AJ: There is a there is a difference, but not a significant difference. Basically it’s a standard set of procedures for how you build a pipe regardless of what’s going to pass through it. There are different regulations in terms of how deep the pipe needs to be in the ground and thickness of the pipe. But basically, in terms of the process of building, it’s the same.

I also found that in pipeline construction–and this is very important to Pennsylvania–pipelines built since 2010, that are carrying hazardous materials including oil and carrying natural gas, are much more likely to fail than pipelines built at any time in the previous century. And compared to the previous decade, pipelines built since 2010, carrying oil and other hazardous liquids, are more than twice as likely to suffer incidents. And those carrying natural gas are over five times more disaster prone. That means the newer the pipe, the more likely it is to rupture, leak, spill or explode. And that impacts both the workers whose job it is to install it, to maintain it– and the people who live near those pipelines. And so we are seeing a rash of pipeline explosions recently, particularly natural gas pipelines, that are suffering failures both because they’re too old and because they’re too new. Basically, there was a dramatic increase in pipeline construction that accompanied the boom in natural gas and oil production in the United States. And with the number of pipelines carrying oil and other hazardous liquids tripling from 2006 to 2016, and a similar significant increase in the amount of pipelines carrying natural gas, they were built quickly and they were built, it seems, without the appropriate oversight, because they are failing way too often. It’s also true that there’s more of them. So they are failing in greater numbers because there’s significantly more of them.

KH: Well thank you so much for your reporting on this and for talking with me about it.

AJ: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate your coverage of this issue.

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Antonia Juhasz reported from Standing Rock for Pacific Standard. She is the author of three books, most recently, Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill.

Photo (top): Workers continue to install a shale gas pipe line in Zelienople, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Interested in reading more about how new pipelines are impacting life here in Pennsylvania? Check out our Follow the Pipeline series.