Dead man working

  • Neil LaRubbio


There are plenty of ways for roughnecks to kill themselves. When I worked as a roofer in Deer Lodge, Mont., the guys on the crew would tell the same joke that's been amended to every one of my blue-collar jobs: "If you fall off the roof, you're fired before you hit the ground."

The joke drew smirks every time, but the perils were real. In Deer Lodge, the state contracted us to tear a 40-year-old roof off the high-security cellblocks of the Montana State Prison. Wind blowing off Mount Powell could push a 200-pound man over the side. Fine dust, fiberglass and asbestos whipped around us so fast it lacerated our eyeballs. Getting crushed by the forklift was also always a possibility, and from inside the prison or as they shuffled back from the yard, the inmates promised revenge for the months of disturbances we'd inflicted upon them.

"I want to (expletive) kill you," one said as I passed outside his window. I stared at the ground and continued picking up trash. I don't think he really meant it.

Many occupations in Western states operate with high risks, and some states are worse than others. As Timothy Ryan, former Wyoming state epidemiologist, put it, Wyoming lacks a culture of safety. He reported 62 deaths occurring in the oil and gas fields from 2001-2008, and he said that 96 percent of the fatalities happened while safety protocol wasn't being followed. Ryan resigned Dec.19, 2011, after perceiving a lack of interest from the state Legislature.

But building a culture of safety can't solve everything. Federal wildfire agencies, for example, aim to instill a robust safety ethic in their firefighters, and "Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first," is a standard fire order. Yet safety can be complicated if you're involved in life-threatening activity a long way from a hospital.

Robert Palmer, who has been looking into the death of his firefighter brother, Andy, in 2008, found several problems that almost guaranteed that the medical evacuation team would come several hours too late to save him. Palmer's research into the medical staffing for wildland firefighters brought to light some startling comparisons: For every eight-to-16 soldiers in Afghanistan, for example, one emergency medical technician is assigned to the group. For structural firefighters in cities, the ratio is one-to-one. For wildland firefighters, the ratio is 499-to-one.

From 1980 to 2010, an average of 17 firefighters died nationally each year, the majority in Western forests, six more on average than during the previous 30 years. Yet, no fire manager would say that safety awareness has become lax. No matter the agency's culture, getting these roughnecks to act right in desperate situations can be the most maddening variable of all.

Stacie McDonald, a safety consultant for the energy industry, lamented her frustration with reckless behavior in an opinion column on Jan. 17 for the Casper-Star Tribune: "Even as a safety person, I disagree that more rules will lead to less death or 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."

Her cynicism - or perhaps you could call it realism - made me recall a sunny day in Big Sky, Mont. I'd just leveled a 50-foot ladder by propping up the bottom of one end with a cairn of wallet-size flagstone. Then I climbed up and balanced on the top rung while holding 40 pounds of chinking equipment in my arms. As the ladder swayed, a reel of acrobatic escapes I could perform if things went to hell rolled through my mind. I didn't fall, but I never forgot the feeling that I had been doing something deliberately stupid. Maybe I was just bored. Later on, I kept thinking: What a stupid way to die.

What kind of worker is most likely to choose risk over reason? Researchers at the University of Montana's Department of Health and Human Performance have come to some conclusions. They found that 20 percent of wildland firefighters demonstrate symptoms of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, compared to a national average of 9 percent. The researchers discovered similar statistics in miners, suggesting that people with ADHD gravitate toward high-risk jobs.  Research like this may help industry mold environments that accommodate the risky ways in which some people unconsciously approach dangerous work. For example, according to the University of Montana study, individuals with ADHD show higher rates of substance abuse, which may explain the unsparing quantities of alcohol my fire crew in Montana consumed, or the fairytale levels of meth that are said to circulate among oil field, short-haul truckers.

People who work  risky jobs have a responsibility to themselves, their coworkers and their families waiting at home. But cultivating a safe work environment takes some effort and a lot of education. Industry must prove to workers that their lives and limbs mean more than the stakes of competition, and government agencies must reconcile the logic of fighting wildfire with the science of letting it burn.

Until safety really does come first, roughnecks better keep their heads on a swivel.

Neil LaRubbio is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( where he is an editorial fellow.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Apr 13, 2012 07:50 AM
I've heard of the ADHD among wildland firefighters and other high risk outdoor occupations. Looking back, that was apparent in many of my co-workers, and one of the reasons I lost my taste for that sort of work despite my enjoyment of working outdoors. Solves a bit of the mystery of the behavior and choices of my workmates.
Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Apr 13, 2012 05:41 PM
HI-I must have ADHD 'cuase I'm not sure about the point of this article: the need for a 'culture of safety' in potentially dangerous occupations or the prevalence of ADHD (whatever that is) among people who work in such jobs. I thank God that I am old enough to richly remember the old world, where I was able to work my way through the Univ. of Arizona fighting fires on a summer hotshot crew. What amazing experiences I had working fires in Arizona, California, Idaho, pretty much all over the West. The people I worked with, mostly guys my age (19-25) were pretty impressive too, strong and smart. A few of them are still bestest friends. I was never medicated as a child, got in a couple of fistfights at school (gasp!), somehow survived. I know when we hiked in to a fire in a remote location, or helitacked it, safety was automatic. Escape routes, safe areas, who's got the medical kit, who's got the radio, where are we cutting the line. There was never any drug abuse or alcohol on the job. There was one entrepreneurial buddy who made a killing selling cans of dinty moore beef stew to guys on the line..
Craig Rigdon
Craig Rigdon
Apr 16, 2012 11:21 PM
I struggle to comprehend the point that Mr. LaRubbio is trying to make in this article. He freely conflates fatalities among oil and gas employees and wildland firefighters, while peppering the column with his own unsafe choices while working as a "roughneck" on a demo crew in Deer Lodge, Montana. None of these comparisons are valid. As far as I can see, the only similarity between these different occupations is that they are all inherently dangerous. Beyond that, each should employ a course of safety training that is specific to the job. I worked for five years as a sawyer on a hotshot crew in Montana. Our safety training began the first day of the fire season and did not stop until we turned our gear back in sometime in October. From the superintendent on down, the mantra was: "No tree is worth dying for." Our safety record was impeccable, despite the dangerous assignments that our hotshot crew carried out on a daily basis.

I suggest that Mr. LaRubbio get better acquainted with the statistics that he casually tosses around in this essay. There is a big difference between federal wildland firefighters and those working for private firms. According to statistics put out by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), of the 222 wildland firefighter fatalities that have taken place between 1999 and 2009, 61 resulted from aviation accidents, 54 from heart attacks and other medical emergencies, and 48 resulted from driving accidents. Burnovers took the lives of 26 firefighters over the ten-year period, while hazard trees claimed 8. Of the total, Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture (federal) firefighters accounted for 39% of the fatalities, while non-federal employees (contract firefighters) accounted for 61%. These numbers are easily found with a simple Google search. The point I want to make with these statistics, and one that Mr. LaRubbio did not bother to consider, is that the majority of wildland firefighter deaths do not occur because of a “roughneck” attitude, or even, as he implies, a preponderance of ADHD and substance abusers on the fireline, but because of aviation accidents, driving accidents, and heart attacks.

Over the years, I have come to rely on High Country News for its excellent reporting and its sound judgment. This article falls far short of the standard that I, and many others, have come to expect. It reads like the first draft of a freshman writing seminar paper, the kind where facts and research stand in the way of regaling the audience with a few anecdotes about climbing a ladder or working on the roof of a prison. I suggest the liberal use of the editorial pen, and then send Mr. LaRubbio back to his desk for a more substantive and cogent essay on what are very real, and very tragic, numbers.
Neil LaRubbio
Neil LaRubbio Subscriber
Apr 17, 2012 01:47 PM
Craig - Thanks for your close read. I have heard your arguments before. Your statistics would have definitely elongated my essay, but they wouldn’t have changed the point, which is that safety lapses in Western work environments need serious discussion, even within our beloved wildland fire community. My reference to ADHD was to point out that "Research like this may help industry mold environments that accommodate the risky ways in which some people unconsciously approach dangerous work." And reducing aviation fatalities among firefighters is, indeed, a safety issue with mitigation measures, though rarely does anyone rise to challenge the issue. Read about a few who have in my article from 2011:[…]nes-endangers-firefighters.
Blake Osborn
Blake Osborn Subscriber
Apr 21, 2012 12:41 PM
Come on, Craig. Mr. LaRubbio's internship is teaching him to become a writer of incredibly complex western issues, and to suggest that one would enter into a business with the highest level of mastery is asking a lot, don't you think.

Can you really critique an organization and an individual on the basis of one article? Your sharp words resinate.