There are plenty of ways for roughnecks to kill themselves. When I worked as a roofer in Deer Lodge, the guys on the crew would tell the same joke that's been amended for every one of my blue-collar jobs: "If you fall off the roof, you're fired before you hit the ground."
The joke drew smirks every time, but the perils were real. In Deer Lodge, the state contracted us to tear a 40-year-old roof off the high-security cellblocks of the Montana State Prison. Wind blowing off Mount Powell could push a 200-pound man over the side. Fine dust, fiberglass and asbestos whipped around so fast it lacerated our eyeballs. Getting crushed by the forklift was also always a possibility; and from inside the prison or as they shuffled back from the yard, the inmates promised revenge for the months of disturbances we'd inflicted upon them.
"I want to [expletive] kill you," one said as I passed outside his window. I stared at the ground and continued picking up trash. I don't think he really meant it.
Many occupations in Western states operate with high risks, and some states are worse than others. As Timothy Ryan, former Wyoming state epidemiologist, put it, Wyoming lacks a culture of safety. He reported 62 deaths occurring in the oil and gas fields from 2001 to 2008, and he said that 96 percent of the fatalities happened while safety protocol wasn't being followed. Ryan resigned Dec.19, 2011, after perceiving a lack of interest from the state legislature.
But building a culture of safety can't solve everything. Federal wildfire agencies, for example, aim to instill a robust safety ethic in their firefighters. "Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first" is a standard fire order. Yet safety can be complicated if you're involved in life-threatening activity a long way from a hospital.
Robert Palmer, who has been looking into the death of his firefighter brother, Andy, in 2008, found several problems that almost guaranteed that the medical evacuation team would come several hours too late to save him. Palmer's research into the medical staffing for wildland firefighters brought to light some startling comparisons: For every eight to 16 soldiers in Afghanistan, for example, one emergency medical technician is assigned to the group. For structural firefighters in cities, the ratio is 1-to-1. For wildland firefighters, the ratio is 499-to-1.
From 1980 to 2010, an average of 17 firefighters died nationally each year, the majority in Western forests, six more on average than during the previous 30 years. Yet no fire manager would say that safety awareness has become lax. No matter the agency's culture, getting these roughnecks to act right in desperate situations can be the most maddening variable of all.
Stacie McDonald, a safety consultant for the energy industry, lamented her frustration with reckless behavior in an opinion column on Jan. 17 for the Casper Star-Tribune: "Even as a safety person, I disagree that more rules will lead to less death or injury. I wish it were so, it would be so much easier just to create more laws and rules and enforce them. The inherent problem lies within humans and their innate ability to think for themselves."
McDonald's cynicism—perhaps you could call it realism—made me recall a sunny day in Big Sky. I'd just leveled a 50-foot ladder by propping up the bottom with a cairn of wallet-size flagstone. Then I climbed up and balanced on the top rung while holding 40 pounds of chinking equipment in my arms. As the ladder swayed, a reel of acrobatic escapes I could perform if things went to hell rolled through my mind. I didn't fall, but I never forgot the feeling that I had been doing something deliberately stupid. Maybe I was just bored. Later on, I kept thinking, "What a stupid way to die."
What kind of worker is most likely to choose risk over reason? Researchers at the University of Montana's Department of Health and Human Performance have come to some conclusions. They found that 20 percent of wildland firefighters demonstrate symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, compared to a national average of 9 percent. The researchers discovered similar statistics in miners, suggesting that people with ADHD gravitate toward high-risk jobs.
Research like this may help industry mold environments that accommodate the risky ways in which some people unconsciously approach dangerous work. For example, according to the UM study, individuals with ADHD show higher rates of substance abuse, which may explain the unsparing quantities of alcohol my fire crew in Montana consumed, or the fairy-tale levels of meth that are said to circulate among short-haul oil-field truckers.
People who work risky jobs have a responsibility to themselves, their coworkers and their families waiting at home. But cultivating a safe work environment takes some effort and a lot of education. Industry must prove to workers that their lives and limbs mean more than the stakes of competition, and government agencies must reconcile the logic of fighting wildfire with the science of letting it burn.
Until safety really does come first, roughnecks better keep their heads on a swivel.
Neil LaRubbio is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org), where he is an editorial fellow.