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North Dakota workers dying at nearly the highest rate in the country, report says

Cheryl Zimprich of Fargo places a carnation in a wreath Thursday, April 25, at the Fargo-Moorhead Labor Temple in honor of Jared Rizzo, who died early last year after being injured in an oil rig accident near Williston, N.D. Rizzo and other workers who were killed or injured while on the job last year in North Dakota were honored Thursday during a Workers Memorial Day ceremony.

FARGO — North Dakota workers are dying at one of the highest rates in the country, according to a labor union federation report released the same day locals honored those who died while on the job last year in the state.

The state had 38 workplace deaths in 2017, up 26 percent from 28 deaths in 2016, according to the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report released Thursday, April 25. North Dakota’s death rate was 10.1 fatalities per 100,000 workers, second only behind Alaska’s rate of 10.2, the report said.

In 2016, North Dakota ranked fifth among states, with a rate of 7 fatalities per 100,000 workers, a previous report said.

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Minnesota reported a rate of 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers — the same as the national rate and 23rd among states (50th being the worst). The state had 101 worker deaths in 2017, up from 92 in 2016.

The release of the report comes the same day the Northern Plains United Labor Council, which is the North Dakota chapter of the AFL-CIO, plans to honor workers who died or were seriously injured last year. Officials will read a list of names and place a flower in a wreath for each worker who died in 2018 while working in North Dakota.

"We mourn for the dead, but we fight for the living," United Steelworkers Local 560 President William Wilkinson said in his keynote speech during the event.

Carnations placed into a wreath represented six workers who died since October 2017 in North Dakota. It can take up to two years for names to be released due to investigations into workplace deaths, but those who gathered at the Fargo-Moorhead Labor Temple honored the unnamed victims from North Dakota and Minnesota with two additional carnations.

North Dakota’s rate of workplace death in 2017 was almost triple the national rate of 3.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Nationwide, 5,147 workers died on the job in 2017, which was slightly down from the 2016 figure of 5,190, according to the report.

“This is a national crisis, and it is well past the time that the folks in Washington, D.C., stop playing politics and take action to prevent these tragedies,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said during a news conference.

Trumka attacked the Trump administration and Congress for repealing rules requiring workplaces to keep accurate injury records and ignoring toxic chemical laws that would protect workers from hazards such as asbestos. The AFL-CIO also called on the Trump administration to require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue federal standards on workplace violence.

U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in a statement to The Forum that Trump has spurred economic growth by eliminating "duplicative regulations that hamstrung businesses and failed to protect workers. He acknowledged North Dakota has higher risk jobs than other states but said the death toll is steadily declining.

"To continue this trend, we should encourage local leaders to develop customized solutions that work for both employees and employers, rather than having Washington, D.C., impose the mediocrity of the federal bureaucracy onto our great state,” he said in the statement.

North Dakota had 65 deaths in 2012, with the yearly count dropping until 2017, according to the AFL-CIO report.

Cramer represented North Dakota in the U.S. House for six years until he won the 2018 Senate election against former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, and took his seat in the Senate earlier this year.

His Republican successor, U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, said "one worker death is too many," adding the state needs to bring employees and employers to the same table and find solutions together.

Despite the drop in the nation's total number of deaths, Trumka warned the public to not become numb to the statistics because they represented a staggering number of workers “who lost their lives and they shouldn’t have.”

Wilkinson, whose union is in Gwinner, N.D., said the numbers can bring awareness to workplace deaths, but the event was meant to recognize there are individuals behind those numbers and put workforce safety on the map.

"At the end of the day, these are people with families," he said. "They're not coming home to their families."


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