The oil industry is inherently dangerous — and those dangers are vividly illustrated in the many newsworthy accidents that have been reported across the globe. From a blowout, explosion and fire on a Brazilian platform in 1984 that killed 42 workers to a 1988 oil rig blast in the North Sea that claimed 167 lives to the 2010 explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that resulted in the deaths of 11 workers1, oil industry incidents are often spectacular in nature, deserving of the description, “disaster.”

While the media coverage that these events attract is understandable, it tends to deflect attention from the fact that the greatest cause of fatalities in the oil and gas extraction industry in the U.S. is something far more commonplace: traffic accidents.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) notes that motor vehicle crashes are responsible for 29 percent of all work-related deaths in the industry. From 2003 to 2009, some 202 oil and gas extraction workers died in work-related motor vehicle accidents — a rate 8.5 times higher than for private wage and salary workers. Workers employed by small businesses (with fewer than 20 employees) — particularly well servicing companies — are at greatest risk.2

Why would transportation — often involving light duty vehicles like pickup trucks — pose more of a danger to workers than the complex equipment and hazardous processes used in the oil and gas industry?

Location, location, location

Many motor vehicle accidents affecting industry employees occur on sprawling work sites, and the location of those sites is often remote, reached by rural, poorly maintained roads that lack firm shoulders, adequate signage and other safety features. Hauling heavy equipment to out-of-the-way operations or merely going to and from work can be hazardous in itself. Many remote sites lack housing, causing workers to drive many miles and hours sometimes to commute.

Location + worker fatigue

The intensity of oil and gas extraction activities can mean that workers put in long hours on the job — which may result in fatigued drivers trying to navigate unlit roads on their way home after a shift. Additionally, workers in the industry are predominantly young, predominantly male and primarily residents of rural areas — all characteristics that contribute to a lower-than-average seat belt use. (Safety belts were not in use in more than 38 percent of the fatal accidents.)3

Further suggesting a link between driver fatigue and accidents: a NIOSH study found that 56 percent of fatal traffic accidents among oil workers involved only one vehicle.

Location + worker fatigue + increased traffic

While certain sectors of the industry are experiencing a downturn, others — like hydraulic fracturing — are expanding, bringing with them a corresponding increase in traffic in the areas where fracking is taking place. Heavy trucks are used to deliver loads of sand, pumps and holding tanks to well sites. Service companies also pay regular visits to the sites.

An accident that occurred south of San Antonio, Texas on January 15, 2015 was linked to increased traffic from the drilling and fracking boom the region is experiencing. According to news reports4, five oil field workers were killed in a fiery predawn crash on U.S. 83 when their van struck a tanker truck carrying oil after the truck hit a pickup truck that had slowed. Both vehicles burst into flames.

All of the workers, residents of Laredo, were heading home after a shift when the accident occurred.

Multiple fatality accidents in the area have increased from 72 in 2010 to 101 in 2012 and 148 in 2013. The Texas Department of Transportation reports5 a 13 percent jump in crashes that resulted in serious injuries or fatalities from 2013 to 2014 in the Eagle Ford Shale energy sector, a 26-county region.

In order to improve safety in heavy traffic areas, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has added “Super 2” short-term passing lanes that allow motorists to safely pass slower vehicles to some of the more heavily traveled roads. TxDOT is also partnering with oil and gas companies, the Texas Department of Public Safety and communities to promote roadway safety via a campaign that includes safety messages on TV, radio, billboards and gas pumps.

What can employers do?

NIOSH offers strategies to help companies reduce the likelihood of their workers being involved in roadway crashes.

“Preventing work-related roadway crashes requires strategies that combine traffic safety principles and sound safety management practices,” says NIOSH, in Publication Number 2004-136.6 “Although employers cannot control roadway conditions, they can promote safe driving behavior by providing safety information to workers and by setting and enforcing driver safety policies. Crashes are not an unavoidable part of doing business. Employers can take steps to protect their employees and their companies.”

Among NIOSH’s recommendations: assign a key member of the management team to set and enforce a driver safety policy; enforce mandatory seat belt use; do not require workers to drive irregular hours or far beyond their normal working hours; do not require workers to conduct business on a cell phone while driving and develop work schedules that allow employees to obey speed limits and to follow applicable hours-of-service regulations.

Other strategies include teaching workers to recognize and manage driver fatigue and in-vehicle distractions and making sure workers are trained to operate specialized motor vehicles or equipment.

Employers should also ensure that workers assigned to drive on the job have a valid driver’s license and one that is appropriate for the type of vehicle to be driven and check the driving records of prospective employees.

Best practices

To help reduce the incidence of traffic accidents among oil workers, NIOSH is currently developing best practices4 in motor vehicle safety in the industry, a project The goals of this project are to: 1) Analyze motor vehicle fatalities in the industry to better understand circumstances, trends, and identify workers that are most at risk;  2) Conduct a literature review of industry motor vehicle safety programs; 3) Identify best practices of motor vehicle safety programs in the industry; 4) Develop a Motor Vehicle Oil and Gas Workgroup composed of industry, NIOSH and other stakeholder representatives who are dedicated to reducing motor vehicle injury in the industry; and 5) In partnership with the workgroup, create and disseminate products that support the implementation of best practices in motor vehicle safety for the oil and gas industry.