Worker Fatigue and Vehicle Crashes in the Oil/Gas Industry

TASA ID: 9075

An oilfield services company in South Texas employed just one mechanic to maintain its entire vehicle fleet, which included tractor-semitrailers, pickup trucks, and other work vehicles.  We will call him Mr. Alvarez, not his real name.  Mr. Alvarez worked 78-hour weeks, on average.  A typical workweek might include six 11-hour days plus being called in about twice a week for nighttime repairs, often at remote locations.  One evening he got home to his family at 8:00 pm following a two-day period in which he worked 19 hours straight followed by six overnight hours off, and then followed by another 12+-hour day.  That is 30+ hours of work in just over 36 hours.  Mr. Alvarez was a family man who liked to barbecue for his wife, autistic son, and other close family in his back yard.  He was finishing a barbecue dinner when he received a call from his supervisor to report to work.  Upon arriving there, he loaded a truck tire onto his company pickup and began a nearly two-hour drive to a remote site for a tire change.  He left the company’s gate at 12:10 am and drove at 75 mph on a state highway for about 30 minutes before striking the rear of another oil company’s tractor-semitrailer at full speed.  There was no evidence of braking or significant corrective steering prior to impact.  Mr. Alvarez was dead at the scene.

Sleep loss was probably the primary root cause of the mechanic’s crash and death.The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAA Foundation, 2018; also Tefft, 2018) analyzed in-depth crash investigations performed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.  They found that drivers with less than four hours of sleep in the prior 24 hours were an estimated 15.1 times more likely to cause a crash than those with seven or more hours.  Other likely contributing causes included excessive continuous hours awake and incipient overnight circadian decline in alertness. 

Motor vehicle crash fatalities like this one in the oil/gas industry are a scandal.  In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reported that U.S. workers in this industry had per-employee work-related death rates seven times that of all industrial workers.  Motor vehicle crash fatalities accounted for much of this elevated risk.  The finding prompted the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a unit of the CDC, to conduct a study focused on motor vehicle fatalities in the oil/gas industry (Retzer, Hill, & Pratt, 2013).  Their data was from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), the most comprehensive surveillance system for work-related injury fatalities in the U.S.

Looking at seven years of statistics (2003-2009), NIOSH confirmed that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of oil/gas worker deaths.  The per-employee vehicle fatality rate in this industry was 8.5 times that of all private wage and salary workers.  This elevated risk was a close second to the motor transport industry (e.g., long-haul trucks), most of which is regulated by Hours-of-Service (HOS) and other federal regulations.

Workers from small oil/gas establishments were at greatest risk, and pick-up trucks were the most frequent type of vehicle used by fatally injured workers.  The number of pickup truck fatalities was twice those involving big rigs.  Only 12% of all fatally injured drivers and passengers were known to have worn safety belts.  If one considers only those whose belt use was known one way or the other, 24% had worn belts.

CFOI statistics classify oil and gas extraction companies into three categories:  1) Companies who control and manage leased areas; 2) Drilling contractors who drill the wells; and 3) Well-servicing companies who provide all other types of support, including equipment delivery and transport of the extracted product.  Care to guess which operation type had the most crashes?

The answer is three.  More than 60% of oil/gas motor vehicle fatalities were in well-servicing operations.  They have the most widely distributed operations and therefore the highest mileage exposures.

Drivers with Commercial Drivers’ Licenses (CDLs) drive most tractor-semitrailers in the oil/gas industry.  They are federally regulated by Hours-of-Service (HOS) and other federal requirements.  That is not the case for drivers of pickup trucks or similar work vehicles.  Fatally injured non-CDL drivers may have worked or driven hours beyond commercial driver maximums.  One example is the HOS prohibition against commercial vehicle driving after a 14-hour duty period.  An oilfield worker driving a pickup truck could work 24 hours straight, including multiple driving trips within those work hours.  In addition, they often drive long commutes to and from work across Southwest U.S. deserts or Canadian plains.  Even if they do not drive on the job, they still may have to drive back home at elevated risk.

Of course, fatigue is not the only reason oilfield workers die in crashes.  NIOSH’s causation data were sketchy, but the proximal causes cited were generally much like those in all fatal crashes (Knipling, 2009).  Excessive speed and distraction were among the most notable, along with falling asleep.  The study did not report statistics on “fault” assignment, but one could expect that some share of the crashes were precipitated by other motorists and not the oil/gas workers.

Like transport companies, oil/gas companies have a responsibility to reduce accident risks, in particular motor vehicle crash risks.  They should mitigate all accident risks, including road accidents caused by “the other guy.”

As a crash expert witness, I’ve looked at the safety management practices of four well-servicing companies whose workers had fatigue-related highway crashes.  All four fatigued drivers were of Hispanic heritage and worked arduously to provide for their families and pursue the “American Dream.”  Ironically, in all four cases their crashes were with drivers working for other oil/gas industry companies operating in the same region.  Three out of those four drivers were also Hispanic.  I respect the work ethic and the freedom to work hard for oneself and for one’s family.  Yet I believe that this same work ethic and freedom can lead to worker exploitation.  Mr. Alvarez’ wife begged him not to work so many hours.  She stayed up waiting for him to return from every late night repair trip.  In depositions, she stated that Mr. Alvarez wanted to work less but believed he would be fired if he did not work all the hours the company expected from him.

Internationally, the oil/gas industry recognizes the accident risks inherent in its operations, and in particular, the risks of work fatigue.  The International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP) is the industry’s premier trade association.  Its members “identify and share knowledge and good practices to achieve improvements in health, safety, the environment, security and social responsibility . . .” (Website, IOGP.org).  For decades, the IOGP has published and updated guides for reducing oil/gas worker fatigue and associated accidents.  Their guidelines are largely the same best practices promulgated widely in transport and other industries.  Among the organizational practices recommended in the IOGP’s Managing Fatigue in the Workplace; A Guide for the Oil and Gas Industry (2019, also earlier editions) are:

  • Develop a company program that analyzes and actively manages its fatigue risk profile.
  • Schedule workers mindful of their need for sufficient sleep, limited duration work shifts, schedule regularity, and risky circadian times such as the overnight and pre-dawn hours.
  • Discuss and practice sleep hygiene and related work management at all levels within the business.
  • Periodically audit fatigue management practices and eliminating any shortcomings.
  • Regularly deliver fatigue awareness and management training using science-based and effective training media.
  • Allow fatigue incidents and concerns to be reported to management without retribution.
  • Fully investigate conditions or incidents likely involving worker fatigue.
  • Ensure that all individuals in the company understand the importance of sleep, openly discuss it, and make it a priority.

Unfortunately, laudatory efforts at the top levels of industry and government often do not trickle down to the front lines, especially in many small companies with scarce risk management knowledge and resources.  None of the four companies I have reviewed had systematic fatigue management programs anything like those described above.  All talked to their workers about operational safety, and several had written policies and training materials suggestive of a conscientious program.  However, their rules were not behavior-based and not reflected in actual practice.  Telling workers that, “Safety is our #1 goal!” does not mean much if they are then asked to work beyond human capacity.

Cited References

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety [Author: B. C. Tefft].  Acute Sleep Deprivation and Risk of Motor Vehicle Crash Involvement.  Fact Sheet.  2018.  Available at AAAFoundation.org. 

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Fatalities among oil and gas extraction workers—United States, 2003–2006. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 57 (16), 2008 Pp. 429–431.

International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP)Managing Fatigue in the Workplace; A Guide for the Oil and Gas industry.  2019.  (Previous editions date back at least to 2007.)

Knipling, R.R.  Safety for the Long Haul; Large Truck Crash Risk, Causation, & Prevention.  American Trucking Associations.  ISBN 978-0-692-00073-1, 2009a.  Available at www.atabusinesssolutions.com.

Retzer, K.D., Hill, R.D., & Pratt, S.G.  Motor vehicle fatalities among oil and gas extraction workers.  Accident Analysis & Prevention, 51, 2013, Pp. 168-174.  Summary available at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/workschedules/2019abstracts/oilgas2.html.

Tefft, B.C.  Acute sleep deprivation and culpable motor vehicle crash involvement.  SLEEPJ, Pp.  1–11, 2018.  Available at: https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/41/10/zsy144/5067408.

Dr. Ron Knipling is the author of Safety for the Long Haul; Large Truck Crash Risk, Causation, & Prevention, the only comprehensive textbook on large truck safety.  In recognition of the book, he received the International Road Transport Union (IRU) Order of Merit award, the first given to an American scientist.  Dr. Knipling is a traffic safety researcher, consultant, and expert witness based in the Washington, DC area.  More information is at www.safetyforthelonghaul.com.

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

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