Dead man working

 

There are plenty of ways for roughnecks to kill themselves fast. Working as a roofer in Deer Lodge, Montana, they’d repeat that old joke that’s been amended for every blue-collar occupation in which I’ve ever been employed.

“If you fall off the roof, you’re fired before you hit the ground.”

The cruelty of it drew a smirk every time it was quipped to a new hire. Last summer’s roofing work was awful and dirty. It was a state-funded job tearing a forty-year-old roof off the high-security cell blocks of the Montana State Prison. The wind coming off Mount Powell could blow a 200-pound man over the side. Fine dust, fiberglass and asbestos whipped around us so fast, it lacerated our eyeballs and stuck in our lungs. Being crushed by the forklift was always a possibility. Teaser narratives of prisoners rioting through the facilities, scaling the walls and plugging us with shanks, of course, ran in the back of my mind. The inmates gave us fair warning of their unhappiness with the four months of disturbances we’d inflicted above them.

“I want to (expletive) kill you,” one of them emphasized to me as I passed outside his window. I stared at the ground and continued picking up trash. I’m sure he didn’t mean it.

Horrific as it was, some occupations in Western states operate with a lot more risk than this. Recent news from Wyoming highlighted a politically embarrassing piece of work by former state epidemiologist, Timothy Ryan. In the face of government and industry know-nothings, who appear to trudge toward 21st century safety standards with concrete blocks on their feet, Ryan reported that the state lacked a culture of safety. He found 62 deaths in the oil and gas fields from 2001 – 2008, adding that 96 percent of fatalities occurred while safety protocol wasn’t being followed. In 2009, Rebecca Clarren found similarly scant safety oversight among dairy farms in an article for HCN. As a civilian occupational group, farming, fishing and forestry (PDF) has the highest worker fatality rate in the nation.

To view this and other visualizations of fatality data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, download their 2010 charts (PDF).

Wyoming has ranked last or runner-up in worker deaths for a good decade. In 2007, High Country News senior editor, Ray Ring, keyed into the dirty reality of death and injuries in the West’s oil and gas fields. Ring found that finding the best data to diagnose the problem could be the most difficult puzzle of all. He explained it like this:

In the Interior West, the federal OSHA runs Colorado, Montana and North Dakota workplace safety probes; Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico run their own programs, under the direction of governors and oversight of legislatures. If you try to total the accidents, you find problems like this: The Wyoming OSHA investigates if at least three workers are hospitalized overnight. But Utah’s agency investigates whenever one worker (or more) goes to a hospital. In this way, the energy accident statistics of different states become apples and oranges, incomparable, but almost always understatements.

 The shroud of safety can sometimes mask just as many discrepancies as its overt absence. Wildfire agencies instill a robust safety ethic in their firefighters. “Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first,” is a standard fire order. But Robert Palmer discovered defunct methods of evacuating critically injured wildland firefighters from an accident scene.  His brother, Andy, died in 2008 after a tree his crewmembers cut fell on top of him, a story I told in the October issue of High Country News. Andy held on for three hours with a ruptured femoral artery, waiting for a medical evacuation that came too late. Among other things, Robert found insufficient medical staffing was a major hindrance to saving firefighter lives. His research showed that for every 8 to 16 soldiers in Afghanistan, there is one EMT assigned. Structural firefighters enjoy a 1 to 1 ratio. In wildland firefighting, it's 499 to 1.

Mitigating risk is the hopeful byproduct of cultivating that culture of safety Wyoming's Ryan talked about in his report. However, sometimes leading these roughnecks to drink the safety Kool-Aid becomes the most frustrating variable of all.

For example, I completely understood that balancing a 50-foot ladder on a cairn of wallet-size flagstone while I stood on the top rung balancing 40 pounds worth of chinking equipment was like an act of god and an act of lunacy all wrapped up into one. In fact, safety was wholeheartedly on my mind that summer of 2005, and I imagined a list of acrobatic escapes I would perform if anything went wrong. The owner of that small chinking business expected us to work safe and provided the tools and instruction for that to happen, but I chose the ulterior course of risk and adrenaline.

Stacie McDonald, a safety consultant for the energy industry, lamented her frustration with this kind of behavior in an opinion column for the Casper-Star Tribune.

“Even as a safety person, I disagree that more rules will lead to less death/injury. I wish it were so, it would be so much easier just to create more laws and rules and enforce them. The inherent problem lies within humans and their innate ability to think for themselves,” McDonald opined.

Researchers at the University of Montana’s Department of Health and Human Performance found that 20 percent of wildland firefighters demonstrate symptoms of ADHD (PDF). They found similar statistics in miners, concluding that people who display behaviors of ADHD gravitate toward high-risk jobs.  Research like this may shed light on the nature of individuals working in hazardous environments. It can assist industry in molding environments to accommodate for their workers’ well being. For example, according to the UM study, individuals with ADHD show higher rates of substance abuse, which may explain the deplorable quantities of alcohol my fire crew in Montana consumed. Or the fairytale levels of meth circulating through oil field short-haul truckers. That seems like information that industry safety managers could use.

Until that happens, roughnecks, keep your heads on a swivel.

Neil LaRubbio is an intern at High Country News.

Image of oil rig worker statue courtesy Flickr user Greg Bishop

Image of ladder courtesy Flickr user Christop Brooks-Booth