Oil industry a dangerous place for drivers

Posted on 05/22/2012 by David Radke

The sector operates under a different set of rules than other drivers.

With the economy still staggering toward a recovery in many areas, some parts of the country are looking to the booming oil and gas industry to see them through the rough times. And trucking has gained as much as anyone from a business that requires large amounts of heavy equipment to be moved all around the country.

But last week The New York Times reported that the quick economic boost from oil and gas exploration has not come without a price. Benefiting from its own unique exemptions and operating under a different set of DOT compliance guidelines, the energy sector has seen a dramatic increase in traffic fatalities in recent years.

Fracking and the future of energy

While the sudden buzz around the word fracking seems fairly recent, this comparatively new method of extracting oil and natural gas - more professionally referred to as hydraulic fracturing - was actually developed decades ago. The revolution in the country's energy supply, meanwhile, has been going for at least a decade.

However, with the U.S. recently surpassing Russia as the world's largest producer of natural gas, and particularly as natural gas prices have fallen low enough to convince some industries to make the switch from oil, these changes are coming more and more to the forefront.

The Times notes government figures project another 200,000 new oil and gas wells will be drilled in the next decade, with each well requiring between 500 and 1,500 truck trips each. That's between 10 and 30 million trips. Some of these might be short hops from one Pennsylvania town to another, but places like Western Texas and Oklahoma, where multi-hour trips are basically a requirement, are also huge centers of the fracking boom.

Its own set of rules

While all truck drivers face strict Hours of Service limitations, preventing anyone from driving too long or from driving after a long day of work elsewhere, these limits are slightly different for the energy industry.

In the 1960s, the sector successfully argued that the unusual schedules seen on oil fields required more flexible HOS rules for the drivers. Though oil and gas drivers are limited to the same 14 hours driving as everyone else, they don't have to count any of the time they spend waiting for loading, unloading or whatever else might hold them up on-site, which can sometimes mean 10 hours in a cab. These drivers also only need 24 hours for a reset, instead of the normal 34 hours.

"The growth of this industry is a big concern because it’s adding so many more trucks on the roads and its drivers don’t have to follow the same rules as others," Henry Jasny, a lawyer for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told the Times.

With log audits from regulators relatively infrequent, the Times notes some employees have claimed they are encouraged to push even these relaxed limitations, including one suit brought against Colorado-based Energy Services.

Deadly consequences

Though driver compliance efforts have helped to increase the safety of the country's trucking industry, the Times notes that highway accidents remain the single largest source of workplace-related fatalities. However, the oil and gas industry sees an even greater threat from the same source.

While highway accidents accounted for one-fifth of workplace deaths across all industries from 2003 to 2008, they were the cause of one-third of the 648 deaths in the oil and gas industry.

"Unless changes are made to increase worker safety, the high fatality rates described in this report are likely to continue," the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in a report cited by the Times.

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