In the oil and gas industry, the real danger to workers is on the highway

By: Seth Bader, Esq.

Although working “in the field” in the oil and gas industry is widely regarded as a hazardous occupation, the real danger to workers may very well be on the open road. As noted in a recent New York Times article by Ian Urbina: “Over the past decade, more than 300 oil and gas workers . . . were killed in highway crashes, the largest cause of fatalities in the industry.”  As the article implies, the situation would only grow worse as the industry expands in the foreseeable future.

Many safety experts attribute this dangerous situation to the numerous exemptions from highway safety rules granted to the industry. These relaxed rules lead to truckers being persuaded to work exceptionally long periods of time.

As the Times reported, one particularly serious accident in which a trucker was killed occurred when his vehicle left the road and crashed after the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The two men were going home to West Virginia after working at a natural gas well in Ohio for more than 17 straight hours.

While the extended work hours often add to drivers’ income, other factors are directly attributable to demands within the industry itself. For example, Garr Farrell, an oil service driver in Texas, complained to federal highway safety regulators in 2011 that he had been forced to wait 36 hours before he could unload supplies at one busy oil field.  During that waiting period, he had no actual place to sleep and was forced to take naps wherever and whenever he could before unloading his cargo and returning to the highway.

Industry expansion, which has already started, is expected to bring millions of dollars and thousands of jobs to localities throughout the country with most (some 90%) of the new drilling being done by “hydraulic fracturing” of subsurface rock formations.

Fracking requires pumping millions of gallons of water into every well in order to free trapped gas and oil. The process requires this enormous amount of water and the residue left behind to be trucked in and out. These thousands of extra truckloads will require many more trucks and drivers.

Based on past experience, this will result in many more roadway accidents and an accompanying increase in injuries and deaths. The Times article reported that, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), in the five-year period from 2003 to 2008, more than 200 of about 650 oil industry fatalities were the result of highway mishaps—nearly one third. In contrast, highway accidents caused about one fifth of fatalities in all industries in 2010.

“The growth of this industry is a big concern because it’s adding many more trucks on the road,” said attorney Henry Jasny of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Oil and gas truckers’ substantially extended driving time bothers him because these drivers “don’t have to follow the same rules as others”.

Sources such as the Pennsylvania State Police say that the trucks driven by oil and gas workers are often not road-worthy. From 2009 to early 2012, police data indicate, about 40% of 2,200 oil and gas industry trucks that were inspected were pulled from service for being in unacceptably bad condition.

Oil services companies often engage in sharp practices to avoid efforts to bring them into line or put them out of business, according to the Times article.  Energy Services of Grand Junction, Colorado, the company that employed the trucker killed while going home to West Virginia, was cited often in 2009 for repeatedly persuading its truckers to drive after working the 14-hour per shift legal limit, or even demanding they do so.  In 2010, it lost its federal transportation registration as a result of road safety violations and was fined $27,100.

Undaunted, the company filed court papers declaring it was merging with a similar-sounding company, Energy Specialties, and going back into operation with a new federal registration number.  On drivers’ logs, the company simply crossed out its old name and wrote in the new one.

The Government Accountability Office later complained that federal highway regulators failed to pursue companies such as Energy Services/Specialties, which are known as “chameleon carriers” for their skill in continuing operations under concealed identities.

Eugene Roth, the natural gas worker killed in the West Virginia crash, was in his mid-30s and had a troubled background and was imprisoned for six years before the fatal accident. His criminal record made the $14 per hour trucking job important to him and he was clearly determined to keep it, since he took stimulants such as high-caffeine drinks to keep him awake during work. He also worked without taking time off because of a job-related back injury.

Although he caused the accident wherein Roth was killed, the driver who fell asleep at the wheel, Mike Lowther (as well as Roth’s estate) is suing Energy Services claiming the company, which remains separate from Energy Specialties (despite their effort to merge in 2010) made its drivers falsify their logbooks and make up accounts of getting sufficient sleep when they were not.  Energy Services has denied these claims and is also standing behind the exemptions it can claim to work hour limits.

Those exemptions have been in effect since the 1960s, when the oil and gas interests persuaded government regulators that because of the nature of the work at hand, industry drivers needed a more flexible schedule than those in other industries.  One such exemption allows oil and gas truckers who have worked for 60 consecutive hours to come back to work after 24 hours off.  Drivers in other industries, having worked a comparable stretch, could come back only after at least 34 hours of rest.

Most truckers outside the oil and gas industry have to stop driving 14 hours after the start of their workdays.  However, as Garr Farrell’s experience with waiting 36 hours to unload his truck demonstrates, time spent at the well site is up to those running the site and may seriously delay a driver in completing his work thereby causing him to leave the site in an exhausted condition. Attempts by federal regulators to permit “drivers to get the restorative sleep [regulators’] research suggests they need” have been stifled by oil and gas lobbyists and officials.

Although it is argued in the industry’s behalf that exemptions apply only to strategic trucks and those who drive them, the industry may give any truck that designation.  Eugene Roth and Mike Lowther, the sleepless driver, were only in a pickup truck returning home when their accident occurred.

Compounding the problem is the fact that some governmental personnel see things the same way the oil and gas industry does. Late last year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation, said the industry exemptions had about half a century of precedence and ought to be left alone.  Against that judgment is the voice of Garr Farrell, who, in his 2011 letter to federal highway safety regulators, said: “Oil field crews work only 12 hours and go home, or to a motel.  It is unsafe to expect truck drivers to work longer than that.”

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