4 men have died in Alaska’s North Slope oil fields in just over a year

A water truck and blade add layers of ice chips and water to an ice road near a flow line on the Western North Slope in 2017. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

In the last 14 months, four men have died while working in the oil fields on the North Slope. 

Before that, the area hadn’t seen a death in about five years, according to Anchorage Daily News reporter Alex DeMarban.

DeMarban has covered the oil and gas industry for years, and said it’s unclear what to attribute to the recent spike in deaths. However, he said a lack of information from local, state and federal officials has left many with more questions than answers.


Alex DeMarban: We’re talking about, you know, the North Slope, near the Arctic Ocean, of Alaska. So we’re talking about extremely cold weather and windy weather, uncomfortable conditions, and also a unique environment that involves things like ice roads and snow and massive equipment. So it’s possible that this is just an unusual series of accidents. It’s also possible that something larger is going on. And I would certainly like to know more about whether something larger is going on, in order to prevent more deaths, of course. 

Wesley Early: What do we know about the specific incidents?

AD: Well, it’s interesting. So a couple of the deaths have not involved complex operations, it seems. Those deaths could have happened anywhere. So for example, just last month, it sounds like during a snow clearing operation, a front-end loader struck and killed a man, a worker who was walking on the ground. Seems like that could happen in Anchorage, or anywhere. And then last year, in the first death that started in April of last year, a man was unloading pipe, and he slipped and fell on ice. And the pipe somehow came into contact with his head, I assume fell on his head, but it fractured his skull. And so he died that way. So that was a slip on the ice while trying to unload what I’m sure is very heavy equipment in difficult conditions. But those seem fairly mundane. 

And then there’s a couple other incidents that involve more complex operations. For example, in this latest incident that occurred this month, a man was killed — this was in Prudhoe Bay — during an assembly of a mission stack. So I assume large pieces of pipe involving a crane. Somehow, a man was caught between two pieces of pipe. It sounds like one rolled on the man and crushed him. In all these cases, we don’t have a lot of information. The state and the federal government, depending on which labor agency is investigating, will just release, you know, a two or three-sentence statement, often without the person’s name even. Just the barest of details. To me, that’s a disservice, I think, to the families and to the idea that if the public actually could know what’s going on, then perhaps the public could, you know… perhaps there’d be more pressure for these kinds of incidents to not happen again. 

WE: Has anything changed lately that would lead you to believe that it’s related to the high number of deaths? 

AD: You know, one thing that has changed is that Hilcorp became the major operator in the Prudhoe Bay and nearby fields after it purchased Prudhoe Bay and other oilfield assets from BP in 2020. And Hilcorp, their name comes up in all of these incidents, just because they’re such a big operator now on the North Slope. So they are the operator in three of these cases, in the fields where three of these cases took place. And of course, their oversight would suggest that they set the culture up there on the North Slope. In each case, none of these employees were employed directly by Hilcorp. They were employed by contractors that support oilfield work. That’s not to say that it’s Hilcorp’s direct fault in any of these incidents. But it does raise questions about what’s happening and maybe a workplace culture. 

WE: One of the things I’m wondering is as a reporter, as you’re reporting on these deaths, what’s more information that you’re trying to get at? What are things that aren’t being said that you’re trying to get more information on? 

AD: Fortunately, with these more recent deaths, I believe there’s more chatter on social media from employees themselves who are increasingly concerned about what’s going on. And so I believe that higher profile has led to a quicker release of information, but it’s still slow. In the most recent death this month, we saw it on social media one day. We contacted regulators and the companies that might have been involved. Hilcorp, the very next day, let us know that someone had died. So that was extremely rapid. It just took one day to confirm that, okay, a fourth person had died. However, we still didn’t actually know what happened or even have a name for another week, roughly. And the only reason we were able to have a name is because the father had called the Anchorage Daily News and said that he wanted to let people know that his 23-year-old son, who was well known throughout the state —  he was a basketball player at high school in Kenai and had a bright future ahead of him, of course — his father just wanted to let friends and other people who had come across him through their life know that this is the young man who had died. So that was extremely tragic to kind of understand that this is the way that information is being released. It was kind of heartbreaking to hear from the father. 

And I’m understanding also that the families themselves don’t always have a lot of information in a very expedient way in these cases. So I think that that lack of information is also a disservice to preventing future accidents. So I think that there’s a lot of room for improvement, both from the oil companies and the contracting companies, as well as state and federal regulators to express specifically what’s happening, to let us know that it was someone with family who has passed, not just an anonymous person. To me, it has less meaning. If the person is anonymous, to me, there’s a chance that it’s easier to dismiss a death.

a portrait of a man outside

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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