The Bismarck office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has four people who monitor compliance for 56,000 businesses in North Dakota and South Dakota.
That number is five less than it was in 2000 in a region with 5,700 producing oil and gas wells and 199 working rigs.
"Clearly, we can't be in all places at all times," said OSHA Area Director Tom Deutscher. "We're roughly a third of the personnel we need to be, so we're in response mode."
Deutscher said his office handled 14 workplace deaths in the past year, and half of those were in the oil and gas industry. A well explosion in McKenzie County added two more fatalities to the tally this month. The rapid expansion of drilling means more and more people are going to work at sites where there is a potential for a deadly accident.
"For lack of a better word, we're the cop on the street," Deutscher said. "One of the dilemmas we face is the question of ‘How do we have a presence up there?'"
Oil and gas development, like other industrial activities, can be dangerous for workers, and the growth of wells in state has been reflected by the growth of injury and accident claims.
According to the North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance agency, the number of claims filed in oil and gas occupations during the 2004-05 fiscal year was 247. This year, that number is 1,897. The number of workers in those jobs also has increased - from 4,800 to 23,753 during the same time periods.
"The number of claims filed has gone up drastically," said WSI Director Bryan Klipfel. Claims have increased by 198 percent in oil trucking jobs and 178 percent among well servicing occupations.
When occupations experience dramatic growth as they have in the oil patch, it is natural that the number of injuries also increases, Klipfel said.
"I hope it doesn't happen, but that's usually the trend," he said.
Most of the injuries are not serious, and the most common are ergonomic, related to lifting or repetitive tasks. But when something goes wrong at a well site, it can happen in dramatic fashion, as it did in McKenzie County on Sept. 14, when a well exploded and killed two workers and burned two more.
OSHA faces a number of challenges to its oversight of the oil patch: the large number and wide dispersion of work sites, its small number of compliance officers and even finding lodging for its staff when they visit oil and gas counties.
Assistant Area Director Eric Brooks said that even keeping track of where rigs are can be difficult.
"You simply don't know where these rigs are," he said. "Unlike a Cloverdale or a Bobcat - we know where they are."
OSHA is trying to hire three more staff members - an industrial hygienist, a safety specialist and an engineer. It can be difficult to attract people with the necessary skills and training and the agency has to compete with the energy industry itself for good candidates.
"You can't just hire anybody off the street," Brooks said. "It takes two, three years to train a journeyman compliance officer."
Deutscher said that a more visible presence by OSHA in the oil fields would encourage safe work sites - "If the HP parks under the overpass, people slow down" - but the size of the industry and his agency's limitations mean that OSHA must rely on companies to promote good behavior.
Brooks and Deutscher said that most companies are good actors and the complexity of drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations means there is little room for carelessness. But that is not always true.
"It's like the old gold rush," Deutscher said. "It's a hurry to get the stuff out of there, and sometimes safety be damned."
Klipfel said that WSI has safety consultants working in the oil patch and throughout the state and it provides educational resources for employers. There also is a cost incentive in the insurance rates they pay and the cost of claims, which averages $10,550 per claim in oil and gas occupations.
"It's really business sense, financially, to have as much safety as possible," Klipfel said.
In place of monitoring work sites, OSHA is trying to educate workers on how to report work site violations and on their rights to speak out without the threat of employer retribution. But even when OSHA receives reports, it is difficult to respond to all of them.
Brooks said that another danger in North Dakota's oil and gas fields is the number of workers who are new to the industry. In west Texas, where he grew up, multiple generations of the same family work in the industry, and skills and safe practices are ingrained.
"In the oil and gas industry up here, the skill set doesn't exist in the same manner," he said. "That lost skill set is one of the most dangerous components out there."
OSHA also promotes small, "seat-belt" measures that are easy to follow but make a big difference to safety. The biggest one is flame-resistant clothing.
"If there's one thing I'm standing on a stone and preaching, it's FR clothing," said Brooks, who saw the Persian Gulf oil industry while in the Navy. "I never once saw an Arabian oilfield worker in jeans and shorts."
North Dakota's director of mineral resources, Lynn Helms, said he believes the state's safety rules are adequate, but the resources of industry monitors like OSHA are likely not enough to police everything.
"Probably not when you see the kind of growth we've seen," Helms said. "Everything is kind of stressed."
Deutscher said companies and workers must understand how to prevent accidents.
"The real question is, ‘Why do we still have these accidents out there?'" he said. It is a question the industry and its monitors need to answer "before some other mother's son or daughter is lost."
(Reach reporter Christopher Bjorke at 250-8261 or chris.bjorke@bismarck