Why you should care

Because lives shouldn’t be the cost of doing business.

PART OF A SPECIAL SERIES FROM OZY
Join OZY as we travel through all 50 states to uncover the challenges and meet the innovators reshaping a country that's more divided than ever.
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As a lifelong carpenter, Jared Castoreno had developed a reputation as a perfectionist. “Everyone knew him as Mr. Safety,” his brother, Aaron, remembers. But the Grand Forks, North Dakota, native also felt pressured by his employer to perform.

And so Castoreno continued on a remodeling job that hadn’t been checked by an electrician, despite multiple requests to his boss, his family says. Hours later, the 30-year-old was found dead, accidentally electrocuted (his employer, Civil Contracting Services, did not respond to requests for comment). The tragedy was compounded by North Dakota’s dismal safety record. “If my brother was working in a different state, he would still be alive,” says Aaron, who is now leading efforts to change workplace safety laws.

North Dakota has the highest fatality rate for laborers per capita in the nation.

Worse still, this is the fourth time in the past five years it has topped the list for most worker deaths. That analysis comes from an annual report published by the AFL-CIO, the largest union collaborative in the United States, which found 47 deaths on the job in North Dakota — a rate of 12.5 per 100,000 workers — in 2015, the most recent year of available data. The other states with the highest fatality rates included Wyoming (12 per 100,000), Montana (7.5) and Mississippi (6.8). Overall, nearly 5,000 people were killed in labor-related incidents that year.

There is no acceptable number when it comes to the loss of life and injured people.

Eric Brooks, North Dakota area director, Occupational Safety and Health Administration

That harsh reality has manifested itself in tragic stories, while North Dakota workers feel that meetings and state court battles have done little to address their concerns. “It’s like I was just ignored,” said one injured worker, Tammy Kivley of Fargo, during a public comments hearing last year. The state’s worker compensation unit has drawn fire, paying less than $4,000 on average for each worker death, compared with the national average of about $15,000 according to the AFL-CIO report — which also found that it would take North Dakota’s seven safety and health inspectors more than a century to inspect each workplace across the 70,700-square-mile state.

That’s not to say nothing is being done, says Eric Brooks, the North Dakota area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Explosive oil growth in 2008 and a rash of retirements created “a perfect storm” for the agency. Yet 2012 was a turnaround year, Brooks says, forming new worker safety partnerships across North Dakota and Montana. “This year, we’re down to four fatalities,” he says. Still, he adds, “there is no acceptable number when it comes to the loss of life and injured people.”

But Brooks also believes that reports like the AFL-CIO’s don’t count transient workers coming from outside the state. Echoing a popular sentiment in the conservative state, Wade Boeshans, president of BNI Energy (which boasted zero work-related injuries last year), adds: “Working safely isn’t about rules, and it’s not about regulations. It’s about the way you start your day and what’s important to you. And what’s most important to us is that we all go home to our families intact.”

PART OF A SPECIAL SERIES FROM OZY
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