A top federal workplace safety regulator in North Dakota this week announced plans for a more aggressive enforcement strategy intended to hold major oil companies accountable for workplace accidents in the Bakken oil fields.

Federal investigators examining new injuries and accidents in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota now will scrutinize whether employers, including big oil companies, that are involved in workplace injuries and deaths pay their employees speed bonuses at the expense of safety. In addition, Occupational Safety and Health Administration lawyers in Denver are researching strategies for holding more top energy producers accountable for workplace accidents.

While not illegal, “if someone has a speed bonus, we will be asking, ‘Why?’ ” said Eric Brooks, director of OSHA’s Bismarck Area Office, which oversees North and South Dakota. “If you’re incentivizing time at the expense of safety, then sooner or later, you will write a direction for disaster.”

The moves follow a recent Reveal investigation into accidents in the Bakken oil fields, which found that shrewd corporate practices and weak federal oversight shield energy producers from responsibility when workers die, while shifting the blame to others. The investigation detailed how major oil companies offer financial incentives to workers for speeding up production – potentially jeopardizing their safety.

Reveal found that top oil companies rarely are held accountable when workers die. There are no comprehensive workplace safety regulations for the oil and gas industry, which allows major energy companies to dodge government citations because they often do not have direct employees at their work sites. Only one energy operator that leases or owns wells has been cited for worker deaths in North Dakota or Montana over the past five years. Since 2006, there have been at least 74 workplace fatalities in the Bakken, which stretches into North Dakota, Montana and two Canadian provinces, according to an analysis by Reveal, the first comprehensive accounting of such deaths using data obtained from Canadian and U.S. regulators.

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Reveal’s investigation underscored the need for a more stringent enforcement structure to ensure the safety and health of all employees on oil and gas work sites, Brooks said.

“The end goal is to hold all employers in oil and gas accountable,” he said.

Brooks said his office is aiming for a tougher strategy that will help investigators show that top energy operators in the Bakken can be “exposing employers” – much like their subcontractors, who typically are fined instead of these producers when accidents occur.

Currently, it is difficult for OSHA to cite energy companies that do not have direct employees on a work site. These producers often evade federal fines for accidents because they hire what are known as company men, who are mostly independent contractors, to supervise their sites.

“If I can say that both employers were exposing employers, you could hold both employers accountable under the general duty clause,” Brooks said, referring to the broad workplace safety requirements that OSHA primarily uses in the absence of an oil- and gas-specific standard. “And that both employers are actively dictating operations.”

In addition, Reveal’s recent findings will be considered as part of ongoing discussions on the potential development of federal workplace safety standards that address specific hazards in the oil and gas industry, an OSHA spokeswoman wrote in an email. If the agency decides to move ahead, however, it could take up to seven years to impose industry-specific standards. The last time OSHA proposed oil and gas requirements was in 1983, but they never went into effect.

OSHA’s Eric Brooks says the agency’s Bismarck, North Dakota, office is aiming for a tougher enforcement strategy that will “hold all employers in oil and gas accountable” for workplace accidents.Credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/Reveal Credit: Credit

“Logic tells us that companies that substantially create or control a workplace hazard should be held legally responsible for the existence of that hazard, especially if workers are hurt,” David Michaels, the assistant labor secretary who oversees OSHA, said in a separate email through a spokeswoman in response to Reveal’s investigation.

“The OSHA law was written more than 40 years ago, and does not reflect changes in the structure of employment relationships that we now see in many industries, including oil and gas production. As a result, many families and communities who have lost loved ones never feel that their losses have been properly addressed, or that adequate measures have been taken to prevent others from losing loved ones to the same preventable hazards,” he said.

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 525 companies, said her organization was prepared to provide input on any new OSHA regulations.

“Safety is priority No. 1” in the oil and gas industry, she said, adding that there was no correlation between performance incentives and accidents.

“Accountability rests where it should,” Cutting said of subcontractors hired to work on sites controlled by energy producers.

A spokesman for Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said Cramer was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

Told of OSHA’s plans, Rebecca Reindel, a senior safety and health specialist at the AFL-CIO, said stepped-up enforcement would yield more accountability in the oil and gas industry.

“This is an important first step that will save lives,” she said. “The industry has gone unregulated for far too long. This Reveal investigation was a needed spotlight on the industry.”

Jennifer Gollan

Jennifer Gollan is a reporter for Reveal, covering labor and corporate accountability.

An Emmy Award winner, Gollan has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to lax manufacturing practices that contributed to deadly tire blowouts.

Gollan uncovered rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry. The series, Caregivers and Takers, detailed how operators enriched themselves while paying workers about $2 an hour to work around the clock. The stories prompted a congressional hearing, plans for prosecutions and new state legislation. 

Gollan exposed how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured. In response to her reporting, Congress passed a new federal law, the Government Accountability Office produced a report and the Pentagon began scrutinizing the safety records of more defense contractors.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian U.S., Politico Magazine and PBS NewsHour.

Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing Awards. She has been a finalist for an ONA Online Journalism Award, an IRE Award and two Gerald Loeb Awards. Gollan is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.