It’s been known for years now that driver fatigue is a serious risk – both on and off the job. A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found fatigue was the top cause of driver distractions, representing 20 percent of all motor vehicle accidents. We’re just not getting enough sleep. Sleep-deprived driving is a particular concern in the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry, where vehicle crashes are the most common type of fatality.

In 2012, the motor vehicle fatality rate for workers in the oil and gas industry was more than eight times higher than that of private workers in other industries, according to NIOSH.

EHS professionals are expanding their fatigue-related knowledge and assessment skills, developing evidence-based fatigue management practices. Currently, most fatigue mitigation strategies take a form of behavior modification – either training or via the use of technology, such as on-board sensors and cameras. In either case, the emphasis is on driver behavior.

Behavior-based technology

For example, driver Bluetooth headsets can be equipped with sensors and algorithms that detect subtle head movements, head bobs, or lack of movement. An accompanying smartphone app give drivers feedback on their safe driving with scores that indicate if they are checking their mirrors in a timely manner, following the speed limit, swerving, or falling asleep. If fatigue or distracted driving is detected, alerts go off or fleet managers can call drivers.

A dash-mounted camera does much the same work. It feeds data to an onboard unit with algorithms that detect eyelids closing or the head nodding, An alarm – seat vibration and audible alerts – is triggered when these movements cross a threshold.

Truck fleets are using this data to tell if drivers are developing the kind of habits needed to drive safely. There are no regulations mandating the use of such technology, but it could become mandatory in at least some companies for drivers with a higher risk profile, or to dictate retraining.

Emphasis on habits

Fatigue-related training can include educating drivers to know the symptoms of fatigue, such as swerving or missing traffic signs, which can lead to micro-sleeps. The overall importance of good sleep habits is emphasized, as is pulling over for rest or letting someone else take the wheel who is more alert. Scheduling rest stops during early morning or late night driving is another consideration.

The emphasis on training and tracking driver behavior and habits stems for estimates that human error is responsible for about 90 percent of haulage truck accidents in surface mining, with up to 70 percent of these accidents relating to fatigue.

Many truckers oppose the use of “E-nannies” and cameras pointed at their face. “We need to take a step back from this digital abyss,” posted one trucker in response to a trucking magazine article. “Let’s acknowledge all the discrepancies in dispatching, including using estimated miles versus real miles, which allows dispatch to put more pressure on a driver,” posted another trucker. “E-nannies are the magic myth that lets us not have to deal with reforming the trucking environment,” said another. “If a driver was paid a weekly living wage and had protected hours and dispatchers were paid hourly rather than on commission, the unhealthy hours and threats of termination would cease,” stated another post.

“Upstream factors” controlled by management need to be assessed as well, including risks caused by shift work, long shifts, long weeks, no rest breaks and quick shift returns. Managing driver fatigue, especially in trucking operations such as oil and gas, should include addressing the long-standing culture of pushing drivers to, or past, the limit.