When we imagine the dangers an oil or gas field worker faces, what comes to mind are explosions, falls, exposure to toxic and flammable chemicals, being injured or crushed by heavy machinery and the general wear and tear of the body associated with back-breaking labor. There are few jobs that are more demanding. But the deadliest hazard these workers face can’t be diminished by hard hats, better equipment or chemical containment. The number one fatal threat to oil and gas workers is fatigue-induced truck crashes.
More than 300 gas and oil field workers have been killed in highway accidents involving company trucks over the last decade, making these crashes the number one cause of fatalities in the industry. Federal “Hours of Service” regulations limit the number of hours truck drivers are allowed to work. These regulations are desinged to minimize fatigue-related accidents. However, according to an article in The New York Times, oil companies regularly receive exceptions from highway safety regulations so that their drivers can work even longer hours than those in other industries. While this may sound good to some, it is a recipe for danger – not just theoretical danger, but danger that is proven out on the road hundreds of times a year.
According to the rules published in December 2011 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), comments from those in the trucking industry “supported continued exemption of oil field operations…One shipper association stated that fatigue was not a problem in short-haul operations.” A transportation consultant to the FMCSA said that limiting the number of hours that an oil field driver can work “just doesn’t seem fair and would severely cripple the industry.”
We’d like to redefine the consultant’s version of unfair. Unfair is being widowed by a trucking accident caused by a fatigued driver. And Crystal Roth knows all too well what unfair feels like, after the July 2011 death of her husband, Timothy Roth.
On that tragic night, Timothy Roth and three coworkers left the natural gas well where they worked in Ohio after working 17 hours straight – double the average American workday. They boarded a truck and began the four-hour drive to their drilling service company’s shop in West Virginia. Less than 10 minutes from home, the driver fell asleep at the wheel, veered off the highway and slammed into a sign, killing Timothy Roth.
Company Ignored Blatant Warning Signs
This wasn’t the first time Timothy Roth’s employer, Energy Services, received an indication that exhausted drivers were a threat.
Only two months earlier, Timothy nearly died when another coworker – also tired from working a long shift – fell asleep at the wheel and drove the company truck into a pole.
As if this near-fatal accident wasn’t enough of an indication of a problem, Energy Services had received a citation for this very issue in 2010. Energy Services lost its federal trucking registration when highway regulators found that the company had required or permitted oil field truckers to drive after working the legal limit. Energy Services responded the way any company that values money over safety would. It registered all the trucks to a new company, Energy Specialties, according to the attorney for Mr. Roth’s estate, and continued business as usual. Although the truck in which Mr. Roth was killed was registered to Energy Specialties, all three surviving crewmembers said that they were working for Energy Services that night. This is a shell game of the highest order.
Clearly, it’s naive to assume that Energy Services is the only company that has done this. Federal highway regulators can hand out violations to every company they catch engaging in unlawful and dangerous behaviors, but what’s to stop that company from opening up shop under a different name and continuing its reckless conduct? Right now, the only penalty for doing so occurs when an injured employee or the family of an employee who died files a lawsuit against the company. As it stands, it appears that even that isn’t enough to persuade money-hungry companies to do the right thing. It is time to stand up and stop this behavior.
What is it going to take?
The crash that took Timothy Roth’s life is another glaring reminder of the many failures within an industry that needlessly endanger commercial drivers, and everyone else on the road. We are all in favor of companies making money , but not at the expense of the safety of everyone on the roadway. Unfortunately, the federal government seems incapable of dealing with the problem, and the industry is too money-motivated to police itself. Although there are many safety conscious companies out there, those companies are also victims of the bad companies that don’t follow the rules.
These “bad apple” companies continue to find sneaky ways to conduct business around regulations, rather than taking responsibility for the safety of those upon whose blood and sweat their profits are built. At the very bottom are the drivers and other workers who follow orders to bring home a paycheck for their families, while facing threats both on and off the field.