In the past decade, more than 300 oil and gas workers were killed in highway crashes, the largest cause of fatalities in the industry. Many of these deaths were due in part to oil field exemptions from highway safety rules that allow truckers to work longer hours than drivers in most other industries, according to an article in The New York Times. According to a recent study, oil and gas workers are 8.5 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident while on the job than people who work in other industries.

Many oil field truckers say exemptions help them earn more money, but they are routinely used to pressure workers into driving after shifts that are 20 hours or longer.

High-risk workers

At particular risk of fatigue are so-called “fly-in, fly-out” oil and gas operations. This work arrangement transports individuals to geographically remote areas temporarily. They commute to and from the worksite instead of relocating themselves and their families permanently. Although the individual.  An employee may only travel from home to the worksite once every month, or even less frequently, but the journey may be long, arduous, and involve crossing multiple time zones. Following travel to a different time zone or a change from day shift to night shift, the circadian clock needs time to adjust. During this adjustment period, employees’ alertness and decision-making ability will be affected.

When on site, it’s not uncommon for individuals to work 12-hour shifts seven days a week. Shift work and long and irregular hours are a mandatory component to maintain 24-7 production. The impact on shift workers is the reduced opportunity to achieve regular and restful sleep, which challenges the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

These workers are at-risk of causing an incident when fatigued. This is even more of a risk for professional drivers -- most oil and gas industry deaths occur in road accidents. Approximately one third of the oil field worker deaths in a five-year period were attributed to road accidents, according to statistics gathered by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Offshore distractions

Other oil and gas workers face fatigue risks as well. Excessively sleepy or fatigued workers are 70% more likely to be involved in industrial accidents than alert, well-rested individuals. The accommodation provided in offshore facilities can make it more difficult for workers to get quality sleep. Cabin-sharing, noise, unfamiliarity, and a general lack of privacy can impact the hours of rest and recovery between shifts. Workers can become accustomed to being fatigued and cannot self-assess objectively when they are at risk of making a safety-critical error.

A problem with pick-ups

Demographics also enter the picture. Oil and gas industry workers are disproportionately young, male and work long hours, driving pickup trucks on rural highways. More than half of the fatalities studied in Texas oil fields involved a pickup truck, which don’t require drivers to have a commercial driver’s license.

About 56 percent of the fatal accidents involved only one vehicle. The study notes lengthy drives on rural roads, long work hours and driver fatigue as possible contributing factors.

But it singles out seat belt use — or the lack of it —as a major factor in the high death rates. Seat belts weren’t worn, or the victim was ejected from the car, suggesting that a seat belt wasn’t worn, in half of the deaths.

One man’s story

Despite the dangers of working in the drilling industry, jobs are filled quickly because they pay well, sometimes more than $2,000 a week, and many require minimal training.

After serving a six-year prison sentence on several gun and drug charges, Timothy Roth, 36, was delighted when he landed a job for nearly $14 an hour with Energy Services, according to The New York Times article. “He just kept saying, ‘Baby, this is going to change everything, I promise,’ ” said his wife, Crystal Roth.

After working 17 hours straight at a natural gas well in Ohio, Timothy Roth and three other crew members climbed into their company truck around 10 o’clock one night last July and began their four-hour drive back to their drilling service company’s shop in West Virginia. When they were ten minutes from home, the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The truck veered off the highway and slammed into a sign that sheared off part of the vehicle’s side, killing Roth.

His wife said she knew that her husband and his crew were working too hard because some days they were drinking five super-caffeinated energy drinks each to stay awake during shifts that lasted up to 20 hours, she told The Times.

In court papers, the supervisor of Mr. Roth’s crew and two other workers described how, they said, the company taught drivers to falsify their logbooks.

“All you got to do is say that you went into one of the campers and fell asleep for a couple hours, when actually you’re out there working,” one crew member recalled being instructed.

Energy Services, Roth’s employer, denied these statements in court documents, saying it had told the men to invoke the industry’s exemptions if they needed to justify their long hours in their logbooks.

The crew manager “told them that because we work in the oil and gas field that there are exceptions to the logbook, but not to lie,” the company said in court documents.

This threat will grow substantially in coming years, according to The Times. More than 200,000 new oil and gas wells will be drilled nationwide over the next decade. And the drilling technique used at more than 90 percent of these wells, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, leads to far more trucks on the road — roughly 500 to 1,500 truck trips per well — than traditional drilling, partly because fracking requires millions of gallons of water per well.

What to do

Employers can reduce the risk of worker fatigue by:

  • Examining staffing issues such as workload, work hours, understaffing and worker absences, scheduled and unscheduled, which can contribute to worker fatigue.
  • Arranging schedules to allow frequent opportunities for rest breaks and nighttime sleep.
  • Making adjustments to the work environment such as lighting, temperature and physical surroundings to increase alertness.
  • Providing worker education and training addressing the hazards of worker fatigue, the symptoms of worker fatigue, the impact of fatigue on health and relationships, adequate quality and quantity of sleep and the importance of diet, exercise and stress management strategies to minimize the adverse effects of fatigue.
  • Consider implementing a Fatigue Risk Management Plan under which, like other risk factors, fatigue can be managed.
  • Workers can promote restful, healthy sleep by following sleep hygiene recommendations. Here are some suggestions:
  • Make sure that your sleep period is 7-9 hours daily without disruptions.
  • Try to sleep at the same time every day.
  • Avoid drinks with caffeine prior to bedtime to improve sleep quality.
  • If working evening or nights, make sure that sleep has occurred within the last 8 hours before going to work.
  • If napping before work, make sure that the duration is less than 45 minutes or greater than 2 hours to allow for a complete sleep/wake cycle.
  • Make sure that the sleeping environment is comfortable, cool, dark and quiet.
  • Exercise regularly. Eat a balanced diet. Maintain a healthy weight.
  • If you have difficulty sleeping, keep a sleep diary and talk to your doctor.

It is also now possible to measure the level of drowsiness and alertness in an individual through real-time drowsiness detection technology. For example, Optalert’s technology provides information and alerts to workers and management before the operator becomes drowsy, preventing a dangerous situation from happening. Over time, the real-time information provided to workers helps them self-manage their behavior so they are more alert during work.