Working in Mordor: Workers and the Hazards of Oil & Gas Pipeline Work

It is Halloween night, 2016, and, as I reach the outskirts of town, it feels as though I am entering Mordor. Bursts of red and yellow flames shoot up out of the earth, illuminating the pitch darkness. These are the byproducts of oil fracking, the natural gas and methane that are burned away by producers drilling for oil

To get to refineries, oil and gas have to travel. Either by train (and we’ve seen the problems with travel by rail), or by pipelines. Pipeline work is hard, dangerous and under-regulated. This according to a long, comprehensive and fascinating article by Antonia Juhasz of Pacific Standard about work on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)

Juhasz opens in 2016 with the tragic death of Nicholas Janesich, a 27-year-old from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who is working on a “ripper,” a piece of farming equipment that is used to restore the ground above where the pipeline has been laid so that grass can grow.

At some point along the way, the Ripper struck a large rock, locking a spring-loaded shank in the air, OSHA reports. Janesich got out, and set to work trying to fix it. He appears to have tried using a jack stand as a makeshift pry bar, jamming the long steel rod into the spring above his head. The spring did recompress, according to Indianhead’s incident report, sending the shank back down into position, but with such extreme speed and force that the pry bar was launched directly into the top of Janesich’s head. Somehow, he managed to climb back into his tractor, take off his shirt, and wrap it around his head before collapsing onto the steering wheel, where he remained—critically injured and very alone.

Janesich was not discovered until 2 p.m., when Proud, who was driving back from dropping off another worker, noticed the tractor idle in the distance. As Proud approached, he saw that the door to the cab was ajar, and Janesich was slumped over the wheel. He climbed inside the tiny cab with Janesich and saw the bloodied shirt around Janesich’s head and blood coming from his nose. Janesich was still conscious and able to answer some basic questions, but when Proud looked into the young man’s eyes, he knew he “had to get him out of there and get him to a hospital,” Proud later told OSHA. Photos from the investigation show vomit on the ground near the tractor, blood on the steering wheel, and the blood-stained metal bar still wedged into the Ripper.

At approximately 3 p.m., they arrived at Tioga Medical Center, from which Janesich was airlifted some 80 miles to Trinity Hospital in Minot. His parents, Jason and Toni (“Momma and Poppa Jay”) had received a call alerting them to their son’s injuries and drove seven hours to reach him. Barely 24 hours after being found, Nicholas Janesich died with his parents by his side. A GoFundMe site set up by friends for medical and funeral expenses says that, when it became clear that their only child would not survive, the Janesiches asked that his heart be donated in the hope that this might save another person’s life. Doctors were unable to carry out their wish.

The statistics don’t lie. Pipeline and oil and gas extraction work is dangerous.

In 2016, oil and gas pipeline construction workers died on the job 3.6 times more often than the average American worker. And 2016 saw both the highest fatality rate and the highest number of deaths for these workers since 2012. If we add the deaths of workers whose job it is to maintain and monitor the pipelines as they carry the fuels (pipeline transport), 2016 was the deadliest year for oil and gas pipeline workers since 2009.

The first year that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the number of oil and gas pipeline construction workers who died at work was 2003. My findings reveal that, since then, their on-the-job fatality rate has averaged 4.3 times more than the national average, reaching highs of approximately seven times greater than the national average in both 2005 and 2009. The number of deaths increased by 60 percent, from 15 in 2003 to 25 in 2009—the year with the most oil and gas pipeline construction worker deaths ever recorded.

These findings are consistent with the oil and gas industry as a whole, which is regularly found to be among the deadliest in the nation. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began investigating increasing deaths among oil and gas extraction workers in 2005, finding that, in 2014, they suffered a fatality rate nearly seven times greater than that of the average American worker. For the last 10 years, oil and gas extraction workers have had one of the highest fatality rates in the nation, reaching a high of 7.5 times more than the national average in 2012.

These jobs collectively are not only deadlier than most, they are also more likely to result in serious injury. Energywire reports that, from January 1st, 2015, to October 31st, 2016, oil and gas pipeline construction workers had some of the highest rates of serious injuries on the job among industries with more than 100,000 employees, and oil and gas extraction workers had the highest.

Workers in North Dakota have paid the biggest price:

North Dakota has been at the heart of this boom, with oil production, almost exclusively via fracking, more than 10 times greater today than it was in 2006. Nationally, the boom was accompanied by a 70 percent rise in oil and natural gas extraction worker fatalities, from 85 in 2003 to 144 in 2014—the highest number of oil and gas worker deaths ever reported by the BLS in a single year, according to the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions.

OSHA has a hard time enforcing and regulating. With only eight inspectors covering every job site in the state of North Dakota, “you’re more likely to win the lottery than see an OSHA inspector in North Dakota,” according to Kevin Pranis of the Laborers union which represents many pipeline workers in North Dakota. OSHA’s flat budgets and growing numbers of retirements aren’t helping.

In addition, OSHA has a hard time legally penalizing all of the parties who may have responsibility for safety.  Pipeline developers are often joint ventures involving multiple companies and ownership relationships, none of whom actually employ workers.  The actual work is contracted to pipeline construction contractors, many of whom further subcontract to other companies.

Here’s the problem:

Janesich [and Troy Dolen, another worker killed on the pipeline] had both been hired as temporary employees to work on DAPL: Janesich by Indianhead Pipeline Services, LLC, of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, which was working as a subcontractor to Precision Pipeline [a subcontractor to Dakota Access, LLC, the developer of DAPL], and Dolen by Precision Pipeline itself. Surprisingly, OSHA only tracks and holds accountable employers—generally just the immediate employer—when assessing harms to workers, leaving the parent companies and their investors largely shielded from public scrutiny, legal liability, and damage to the companies’ safety records. “The people with the most resources end up with the least amount of liability,” says retired OSHA assistant regional administrator Richard Wingo.

These tactics also save money. Rather than hire permanent full-time salaried employees, many companies hire temporary contractors and subcontractors, which then hire temporary workers. “They use those subcontractors because they can get them cheaper,” says Gary Beevers, former international vice president of the United Steelworkers union, whose membership includes pipeline workers. According to an analysis by industry advisory group ISN, oil and gas contractors and subcontractors have had higher incident rates resulting in harm to their workers when compared to in-house employees.

The good news for pipeline workers is that while oil and gas extraction workers are not generally unionized, workers that build the pipelines generally are organized because pipeline construction is an outgrowth of the construction industry. Why is this good news? Because union workers generally have lower injury numbers than non-union workers.

Unionization among oil and gas pipeline workers is higher than the industry at large, likely a result of these jobs overlapping with more typically unionized industries, such as the construction trades, or the nation’s refineries, where many workers are represented by the United Steelworkers, including some pipeliners who maintain the lines that carry fuels in and out of refineries. Energy Transfer maintains that the Dakota Access Pipeline was constructed using 100 percent union labor. It hired Precision Pipeline and Michels Pipeline, both union companies, which in turn hired union labor, including Dolen and Janesich, and this may explain why there were only two deaths (that we know of) during DAPL construction.

“Run the numbers,” LIUNA’s Whiteford said, arguing that workers represented by unions have far fewer fatalities compared to non-union workers. I did, and Whiteford is right. Across the U.S., non-union workers accounted for twice as many oil and gas pipeline construction fatalities in 2016 and 2017 than those represented by a union, according to OSHA records.

The recent fall in oil prices, however, has made the safety situation worse. “You’re taking something that used to be profitable at $70 [per barrel], and to keep it going at $35 or $40 requires a lot of ‘techniques,’ including putting more pressure on contractors to do more for less,” says LIUNA’s Kevin Pranis.

And according to Gary Beavers, a former Vice President of the United Steelworkers Union, “Mainly when we see these kinds of accidents in the industry, it’s because the company’s trying to save money and cut corners, wanting to do more for less and with less people.”

And with emphasis on production, rather than safety, things aren’t likely to get better:

The ramping-up of production in the Bakken and associated infrastructure is, then, a part of a larger and highly lucrative plan that goes well beyond the oft-repeated promises of “securing America’s energy future,” or even meeting the demand from U.S. consumers for gasoline for their cars. Rather, key backers and members of the Trump administration are working to turn the U.S. into not only the world’s dominant producer of fossil fuels, but also its one-stop shop for refining and exporting petrochemicals to foreign markets. In June of 2017, Trump declared that it would no longer be U.S. policy to pursue “energy independence”; rather, he would initiate a new era of “American energy dominance.”

This new plan for U.S. global fossil fuel dominance, paired with Trump’s policy of expanding and fast-tracking new drilling and pipeline construction while simultaneously decreasing regulatory oversight, is destined to increase the number of oil and gas production and pipeline workers who are injured or die on the job.

So what’s the answer for workers who need to go where the jobs are? There are a few bright spots on the horizon. One is solar and wind energy. “Since 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported just six deaths total in solar and wind installation combined.”


Drs. Steven Sumner and Peter Layde, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined occupational health risks to workers in renewable energy industries compared to fossil fuel industries. They found that more than 1,300 worker deaths could be averted in the coming decade in the U.S. alone by replacing fossil fuel jobs with jobs in renewable energy.

Like building pipelines? Pipes carry water as well as oil and gas.

A unique investigation by Economics for Equity and Environment and the Labor Network for Sustainability found in 2013 that water infrastructure projects in the five states through which the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline would pass would generate 137 times more jobs over a 20-year period than those expected from the oil pipeline.

Our nation’s water systems are in dire shape. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure a D and D+rating, respectively, estimating that some 240,000 water main breaks occur each year, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water. Our water is delivered through one million miles of pipes, many of which were laid a century or more ago and have long since surpassed their planned lifespans. The ASCE cites a 2012 study by the American Water Works Association that estimated that an investment of more than $1 trillion could be needed for water infrastructure over the next 25 years, which means that, even if only a fraction of these funds were allocated, hundreds of thousands of people could be directly employed, ensuring that Americans have better, cleaner, safer, and more secure access to drinking water.

And the good part about water pipelines from the environmental and safety standpoint is that they only leak water, not oil and gas if they rupture. And water pipelines are built in more populated areas than oil and gas pipelines, making safety enforcement much easier.


Reposted from Confined Space