Over 300 oil and gas workers have been killed in the last decade in highway crashes -- the largest cause of fatalities in the industry -- the New York Times reported yesterday.
Many died because the oil field industry is exempted from highway safety rules that allow truckers to work longer hours than drivers in most other industries like in this multi-million dollar case I handled recently.
Some oil field truckers say that they are routinely pressured into driving after shifts that are 20 hours or longer. Garr Farrell, an oil service driver in Ore City, Texas complained to federal highway safety regulators that his managers had used the exemptions to force him to wait, without anywhere to sleep, for 36 hours at one well site before he could unload his
drilling supplies and then made him drive again on the interstate.
Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board said it "strongly opposed" the oil field exemptions because they raise the risk of crashes, then relented to industry pressure and allowed the exemptions to continue.
This threat will grow substantially in coming years, according to federal officials who cite the 200,000+ new oil and gas wells which will be drilled nationwide. And the drilling technique used at more than 90 percent of these wells, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, leads to far more trucks on the road -- roughly 500 to 1,500 truck trips per well -- than traditional drilling, partly because fracking requires millions of gallons of water per well.
These jobs are lucrative but hazardous, with fatality rates that are seven times the national average across all industries. Nearly a third of the 648 deaths of oil field workers from 2003 through 2008 were in highway crashes. By contrast, highway crashes caused roughly a fifth of workplace fatalities across all industries in 2010.
Some experts have called for increased oversight. An analysis by The New York Times of more than 50,000 inspection reports indicates that as the number of drilling rigs rose by more than 22 percent in 2011 from the prior year, the number of inspections at such work sites fell by 12 percent.
Oil and gas workers also crash because their trucks are frequently in disrepair, the police say. For example, data from the Pennsylvania State Police indicates that 40 percent of 2,200 oil and gas industry trucks inspected from 2009 to this February were in such bad condition that they had to be taken off the roads.
Oil service companies also often circumvent highway safety rules.
For example, the employer of Mr. Roth was cited repeatedly in 2009 for allowing or requiring truckers to drive after the legal limit of 14 hours per shift. But soon after losing its registration, Energy Services officials said in court papers that they had teamed up with another company, Energy Specialties, to continue operating with a new federal registration number.
In March, the Government Accountability Office criticized federal highway regulators for their failure to detect commercial truckers -- widely known as "chameleon carriers" -- that use shell companies to get around safety rules.
On the day of his fatal crash, Mr. Roth's back was still sore from another truck accident about 10 weeks earlier. No one died in that crash, but it was also caused by a co-worker who fell asleep at the wheel, according to Ms. Roth.
In court papers, the supervisor of Mr. Roth's crew and two other workers described how, they said, the company taught drivers to falsify their logbooks.
The number of Americans killed in auto crashes has been falling, but the number of deaths from crashes involving large trucks climbed 8.7 percent from 2009 to 2010.
Across all industries, highway crashes are a leading cause of death among workers. As a result, federal regulators set strict safety rules for commercial truckers that dictate how long they can drive.
But for almost five decades, the oil and gas industry has enjoyed several exemptions to these rules that allow many of its truckers to work longer.
For example, most commercial truckers must stop driving no later than 14 hours after their workday begins. Many oil and gas industry drivers, however, 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.
If most commercial truckers work 60 hours over seven consecutive days, they must take at least 34 hours off so they can get two full nights of sleep. Oil and gas truckers who work that long are required to take only 24 hours off.
But many safety advocates say oil and gas companies routinely apply the exemptions to vehicles that are not covered by them, like the type of pickup truck that Mr. Roth was in or the large tankers that haul waste and water. Enforcing the rules is difficult, said the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an association of police and highway authorities, because federal regulators do not provide a list of trucks that qualify for the exemptions.