There have been at least 74 deaths in Bakken accidents since 2006, according to a Reveal analysis using data from Canadian and U.S. regulators. Credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/Reveal

Since 2006, at least 74 workers have died in the Bakken oil fields, an area that stretches across Montana, North Dakota and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, according to data obtained from Canadian and U.S. regulators.

Montana and North Dakota account for 60 of those fatalities. But that number is likely an undercount, as data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not systematically account for all fatalities related to the oil and gas industry. It also does not cover any independent contractors.

The initial oil and gas industry data that OSHA provided to Reveal for our investigation into worker safety accounted for 47 fatalities in Montana and North Dakota. Those fatalities were tagged with a handful of North American Industry Classification System codes directly related to oil and gas.

But we suspected more workers died doing jobs that helped propel the boom because many workers have been drawn the Bakken to perform jobs to help expand the area’s infrastructure. We reviewed the data with OSHA multiple times to account for people who had died doing jobs in support of the industry, such as companies excavating roads or constructing well pads for oil and gas operations.

Each round of discussion turned up new records that previously were missed. One example: An employee of A&R Construction, a pipeline contractor based in North Dakota, died when he fell off a trailer carrying pipes, including some for oil and gas operations, according to OSHA records. OSHA officials initially concluded that the worker’s death wasn’t directly related to the oil and gas industry because the company was devoted primarily to construction and delivery goods “without regard to the product being delivered,” said Eric Brooks, director of OSHA’s Bismarck office, which covers North Dakota and South Dakota. We included the worker’s death in our count because Brooks said some of the pipes on the trailer were intended for an oil and gas project. After several interviews with OSHA and more analysis, we included 13 additional fatalities with our original count.

Those fatalities might have been overlooked because the North American Industry Classification System emphasizes the nature of the business over the specifics and nuances of the job being done.

“If you’re just relying on the NAICS codes, as OSHA does agencywide, you’re going to miss a whole bunch of cases that are related to oil and gas,” Brooks said.

Still, Reveal’s final tally may not reflect the full extent of the dangers in the Bakken. OSHA’s authority prevents it from investigating incidents involving independent contractors or workers who die in most vehicle accidents. Our total includes the deaths of at least two independent contractors who we learned through our research had died over the last few years.

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Jennifer Gollan is an award-winning reporter. Her investigation When Abusers Keep Their Guns, which exposed how perpetrators often kill their intimate partners with guns they possess unlawfully, spurred sweeping provisions in federal law that greatly expanded the power of local and state police and prosecutors to crack down on abusers with illegal firearms. The project won a 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and has been nominated for a 2022 Emmy Award.

Gollan also has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to shoddy tire manufacturing practices that kill motorists. Her series on rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry, Caregivers and Takers, prompted a congressional hearing and a statewide enforcement sweep in California to recover workers’ wages. Another investigation – focused on how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured on the job – led to tightened federal oversight of contractors’ safety violations.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian US and Politico Magazine, as well as on PBS NewsHour and Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program. Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing awards. Gollan is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Emmanuel Martinez is a data reporter for The Markup. For the past six years, he’s worked in the same position for the investigative news outlet and public radio show Reveal in the San Francisco Bay Area, using data, statistics, and programming to tell stories. His most recent work examined access to homeownership and mortgage discrimination, where he analyzed 31 million housing records to prove that people of color were being routinely denied mortgages in 61 major U.S. metro areas. Emmanuel has also worked on a tool to help match unidentified bodies with missing persons’ reports, reported on why wildfires in the West are growing larger and sparking closer to homes, and dug into water shortages in California’s Central Valley, which produces a quarter of the nation’s food.