I knew that oil industry work was dangerous, but even I didn’t realize how dangerous. I’ve been tracking the many deaths that have happened when workers fall off derricks. But I didn’t realize that the largest cause of fatalities in the booming industry is highway crashes.
The New York Times this week did a story, with the headline “Deadliest Danger Isn’t at the Rig but on the Road,” that spells out and explains the reasons why oil workers are being killed in vehicular crashes. The bottom line is that exhausted crew members are being forced to drive even after working 17 hours days, due to ridiculous exemptions that the industry has received from federal highway safety regulations.
According to the well-researched Times’ story, during the past 10 years more than 300 oil and gas workers have died in highway crashes, making such accidents the largest cause of death in the industry. The story starts out talking about one of these victims, Timothy Roth.
He was killed when he and three other crew members, tired after working as long as 17 hours, drove back to a company office in West Virginia last summer. They were almost at their destination when the driver fell asleep and the truck crashed into a pole, according to the Times.
Ironically, Roth had survived a similar crash two months before, when the driver of the truck Roth was in fell asleep and hit a pole.
The story’s main point is that unless federal regulators remove safety exemptions, which allow employees in the oil and gas industry to work longer hours than drivers in other businesses, there are going to be a lot more deaths.
That’s because there’s an oil and gas boom in this country that is boosting the economic fortunes of formerly poor towns and regions, providing jobs and tax revenue. In fact, The Times says that more than 200,000 new oil and gas wells will be drilled in the United States during the next decade.
That means a lot more oil workers, a lot more pressure to work long hours, and a lot more accidents. The fatality rate for the oil industry is already seven times the national average, according to The Times. And from 2003 to 2008, almost one-third of the 648 oil field workers’ deaths were from highway crashed, the paper reported, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC said that the oil industry is becoming more dangerous because workers are doing longer shifts, inexperienced workers are being hired because of the boom, and older rigs are being used, according to The Times.
The oil industry is able to legally skirt the highway safety rules that are mandatory for other businesses. Most truckers are required to stop driving once they have put in a 14-hour workday. But in the case of the oil industry, drivers don’t have to count any time they spend waiting while another crew does its duties, yet such wait times can be as long a 10 hour, The Times reported.
These safety exemptions were granted to oil companies in the 1960s when the industry maintained that is drivers needed more scheduling flexibility, according to The Times.
There have been a number of efforts to have these exemptions voided, but the oil industry lobby is powerful, and has stopped them. Even the National Transportation Safety Board hasn’t been able to get traction on this issue.
But someone should. These exemptions need to be scrapped, for safety’s sake.
Attorney Gordon Johnson
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justiceg@gordonjohnson.com
:: 800-992-9447 :: Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.