FARGO — As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration marked its 50th year on Wednesday, April 28, union leaders in North Dakota took time during the annual Workers Memorial Day to make a plea for better workplace safety conditions in the state.

Erick Brekke, vice president of the Northern Plains United Labor Council, said the 18 workers from all parts of the state who died on the job last year placed North Dakota at No. 3 in the nation for the most dangerous workplaces, behind only Alaska and Wyoming.

That followed 37 workplace deaths in 2019, which was a rate of 9.7 deaths on the job per 100,000 employees.

While OSHA has helped in many ways, Brekke said in the online program streamed from the F-M Labor Temple, "Our work isn't done yet."

"Many businesses do the right thing, but others cut corners and violate the law," he said.

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The coronavirus pandemic only amplified workplace safety issues, the union leaders said.

Tom Ricker, field representative for United Steelworkers International in North Dakota and Minnesota, said "far too many companies" don't offer health insurance or paid leave, which caused problems during the pandemic.

As cases increased in North Dakota, state president of the AFL-CIO Landis Larson said they continually fought for more personal protective gear and health care coverage for workers in the state.

Many workers were put in "very dangerous conditions," he said, working on the front lines in the COVID-19 fight or in close proximity to each other at their jobs.

"Many who were infected were working-age adults," he said, who had to work indoors in poorly ventilated conditions.

Landis said many residents contracted COVID-19 while on the job, although many companies dispute that claim.

"And what was the state's response to all of this? 'It's a matter of personal responsibility,'" he said.

The root of the workplace safety issues, Landis said, is the lack of enforcement. OSHA has only four inspectors in North Dakota.

With that number, he said, it would take them "170 years to visit each workplace just once."

Ricker pointed to a statistic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that says, in the 28 right-to-work states, the worker fatality rate is 36% higher than in other states where unions have more power and control over their workplaces.

Right-to-work laws mean state employers cannot require staff to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment, but union contracts must cover all workers regardless of membership, according to the nonprofit Workplace Fairness.

Landis urged residents to contact their U.S. senators because a pro-union bill called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act has passed the House and is being considered in the Senate.

The federal labor legislation would override right-to-work laws in states, improve workers' collective bargaining rights and prevent companies from firing or retaliating against workers who support forming unions, Ricker said.

"It would be a generational change for workers," he said.

Brekke said the right-to-work laws here "aren't North Dakota smart."

A PRO Act rally was held Wednesday night in front of the federal building in Bismarck, and a memorial is planned for the state Capitol grounds Thursday. During the memorial, trees will be wrapped with ribbons printed with the names of the 18 workers who died on the job last year.

Landis said he attends memorial events for those who have died, and it "breaks my heart."

"These are working people who never returned home after their shift," he said.