WAHPETON, N.D. — Patrick Wilkie’s life is displayed with love inside a cabinet and on the walls of his parent’s rural Wahpeton home.
The house itself was a final gift from the 26-year-old to Dave and Shavonne Wilkie. Without their son’s life insurance plan, they wouldn’t have been able to replace their old home.
“When Patrick was small, he always (said), ‘One day, I’ll build you guys a house,'” Dave Wilkie said, calling his son a hard worker who helped everyone.
But they weren’t able to share the new home as a whole family. Patrick Wilkie and two co-workers — 22-year-old Tyler Fischer and 41-year-old David Maskey, both of Minot — died June 21, 2013, in a fiery crash near Stanley while driving to a work site.
Vernon Wright, a truck driver from Georgia, was trying to turn left off U.S. Highway 2 near Stanley when his semi loaded with oil stalled and blocked the road, according to court documents describing negligent homicide charges against Wright.
Fog prevented Patrick Wilkie, who was driving a company semi with Fischer as a passenger, and Maskey, who was driving his personal pickup, from seeing the stalled semi, court documents said.
“By the time they saw the truck through the fog, they went underneath it,” said Bob Wolf, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 714 in Minot, who knew the three men. “And the tanker exploded. All three of them were killed.”
Wright was acquitted of the charges.
At 68%, North Dakota had the highest percentage of its workplace deaths classified as transportation-related in the country for 2017, according to an analysis of the latest data from the U.S. Department of Labor and the AFL-CIO. Of the 38 workplace deaths counted that year in the state, 26 were transportation-related.
That was compared to 40% for the U.S. and 45% in Minnesota in 2017, according to the analysis.
It’s unclear whether the three men who died in the crash near Stanley were counted in the 30 or so workplace deaths that were transportation-related in 2013 in North Dakota, since the Labor Department does not publicly disclose how cases are classified.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not investigate the three deaths. OSHA typically does not investigate transportation deaths in the workplace, said Scott Overson, the agency’s director for North Dakota.
Shavonne Wilkie doesn’t know why OSHA doesn’t investigate transportation deaths that are work-related, but she said it should.
“Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first accident, and it hasn’t been the last,” she said.
Families who have lost loved ones in workplace incidents are not only frustrated that OSHA doesn’t investigate all transportation-related workplace deaths. They also want companies and government officials to do more to prevent them.
North Dakota tends to rank high when it comes to the rate of workplace fatalities. With a rate of 10.1 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2017, the state was second in the country only behind Alaska and far above the national rate of 3.5.
It’s not uncommon for North Dakota, or other states, to have a high percentage of transportation deaths. At least 50% of workplace deaths were labeled transportation-related from 2012 to 2017 in North Dakota.
The AFL-CIO, a federation of U.S. labor unions, has criticized OSHA and other federal entities for not having enough investigators to look into worker deaths. North Dakota had seven OSHA investigators in fiscal year 2018, but the AFL-CIO said the state should have 41 investigators, according to the group's 2019 report, “Death on the Job.”
OSHA investigated four workplace deaths in fiscal year 2018 in North Dakota. The agency releases information on when it is investigating incidents, but it doesn’t keep track of whether a death is classified as transportation-related.
A Labor Department spokesperson said the agency does not release information on individual cases, referring to a confidentiality policy that dictates data collected is used only for statistics. Data is collected from different sources, including medical records, OSHA, traffic reports and news articles, according to the Labor Department.
Vehicle crash investigations typically fall under the jurisdiction of law enforcement, OSHA officials said.
Some deaths that OSHA investigated in North Dakota over the last decade appear to have been ones that would be classified as transportation-related, including a fatal semi rollover near Watford City in 2016, a 2014 collision with a train near Ray where a truck driver died, and a 2013 crash that killed a postal worker near Noonan.
The agency looked into the 2015 death of Benjamin Enterman, an engineering intern from Georgia who was hit by a truck while working in a highway construction zone east of Watford City.
Questions sent to OSHA asking whether the agency classified those deaths as transportation-related and whether the agency should investigate transportation-related workplace deaths were not answered.
When asked if OSHA keeps records on transportation-related workplace deaths, the agency referred the question to the North Dakota Highway Patrol and the state Department of Transportation, neither of which keeps data on whether crashes are classified as work-related.
It is rare for OSHA to work with the Highway Patrol, according to patrol spokesman Sgt. Wade Kadrmas.
“I have been checking within our department, and we have minimal contact with OSHA regarding motor vehicle crashes,” Kadrmas said. “In my 15-year career, I remember dealing with them once.”
If OSHA investigated all transportation-related workplace deaths, it could determine the cause of crashes and create guidelines to prevent future crashes, Wolf said.
“The highway patrol is investigative only,” he said.
More than 37,000 people died in vehicle crashes in 2017 across the U.S., at a rate of 11.4 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The same year, North Dakota saw 116 crash deaths, with a rate of 15.2 per 100,000. That put the state 16th highest for fatal crashes by rate.
Crashes are the leading cause of injury-related death in North Dakota, with almost all being preventable because they are attributed to human error, the state Department of Transportation said in its annual report. Speed is one of the most common contributing factors for fatal crashes, said Terry Weaver, traffic safety manager for the North Dakota Safety Council.
“I think people take driving too casually,” she said. “They’re texting, they’re talking on the phone, and they’re not making driving their priority.”
Workers may be at higher risk if they are driving more miles for companies. “They have more of an opportunity to be injured because they are on the road more,” Weaver said.
The Safety Council, a private nonprofit organization, instructs companies on a voluntary basis on how to train workers to drive. Weaver said education will help reduce crashes.
The state of North Dakota also has launched several initiatives in recent years to bring awareness to traffic and workplace safety.
Gov. Doug Burgum and several agencies in early 2018 launched Vision Zero, with the goal of curbing traffic fatalities through educational, legislative, law enforcement, infrastructural and technology efforts.
Earlier this year, the North Dakota Petroleum Council, the Safety Council and TrainND Northwest established the One Basin-One Way safety curriculum. Fifty oil companies helped develop the 18-month training program.
Some companies in the state have defensive driving as part of their orientation for new employees, Weaver said.
Sometimes it takes 'a tragic incident'
Some companies do make changes after deaths.
Patrick Wilkie’s company, Triangle Electric, reviewed its driving policy and added provisions that prevent drivers from going out when no-travel advisories are issued, Wolf said. North Dakota, however, doesn’t typically issue no-travel advisories for fog.
“I think it was a wake-up call,” Wolf said of the deadly crash. “I think it … made some people think, ‘Yeah, we’re making good money out here and they are good jobs, but it’s not worth killing yourself over.”
The Wilkies don’t plan to pursue any legal action related to the crash.
“Nothing is going to bring him back,” Dave Wilkie said. “All we can do is hope that the union or the OSHA folks get things changed.”
Weaver wants companies to be proactive to reduce crashes, including by training workers.
“Sometimes it takes companies a tragic incident … for them to say, ‘Wow, we need to be doing something different or something better to help our employees make it to and from work or if they’re driving on duty,'” she said.
Reducing workplace deaths should be a collaborative effort from citizens, workers, companies and government agencies, Wolf said.
"Everybody should be able to come home at night — the same way they left in the morning — to their families," he said.