Driver Fatigue Deadly for Oil Workers
At about 10pm one night in July 2011, following a 17-hour shift at a natural gas well in Ohio, four crew members climbed into their company truck to begin a 4-hour drive home. Just 10 minutes from arriving there, the driver fell asleep and the truck veered off the highway, slamming into a sign that sheared off part of the vehicle’s side, killing one of the men.
Two months earlier, a similar accident involving the same company occurred when another co-worker fell asleep at the wheel after a long shift and ran into a pole. In 2009, the company was penalised in three US states for violations such as “requiring or permitting” truckers to drive after working for 14 hours, the legal limit.
In the last ten years, more than 300 oil and gas workers have been killed in highway crashes in the USA, the largest cause of fatalities in the industry. Many of these deaths were due in part to oil field exemptions from highway safety rules, which allow truckers to work longer hours than drivers in most other industries. In 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board said it “strongly opposed” the oil field exemptions because they increase the risk of crashes.
Some worker safety experts point to other factors contributing to the industry’s fatality rate. Drug use is common among workers at some sites. In addition, few workers are unionized, meaning they are less able to complain about safety problems without fear of being fired.
After being penalised and losing its registration, the company involved in this accident teamed up with another company, to continue operating with a new registration number, crossing out one company’s name and writing by hand the other’s name over it in drivers’ logs. Highway regulators are now being asked to detect such “chameleon carriers” who use other companies to get around safety rules.
Court papers suggest that drivers had been taught how to falsify logbooks to suggest that they had slept when in fact they had continued working.
Across all industries, highway crashes are a leading cause of worker fatalities. As a result, strict safety rules including driving hours limits are in place for commercial truckers. However, since the 1960s the oil and gas industry has utilised exemptions to these rules which allow truckers to work longer. For example, while most commercial truckers must stop driving no later than 14 hours after their work-day begins, many oil and gas industry drivers, do not have to count time spent waiting at the well-site while other crews finish their tasks. These wait times can sometimes stretch over 10 hours.
The oil field exemptions were granted after industry officials argued that drivers needed more flexibility in their schedules. Since then, the exemptions have survived repeated attempts to remove them. Most recently, in 2010 federal authorities proposed revisions to highway regulations. Dozens of executives from trucking and oil and gas companies submitted comments. In December 2011, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration declined to eliminate the oil and gas industry exemptions, explaining that the exemptions had “been in place for nearly 50 years” and were clear enough.
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