Earlier this week, Ian Urbina reported in the New York Times that hundreds of oil and gas workers have been killed over the past decade in highway crashes. A CDC analysis found that one-third of the 648 oil field workers who died on the job between 2003 and 2008 were killed in these crashes. Workers falling asleep at the wheels of trucks after working long shifts are a major factor in this high rate of vehicle fatalities — but, Urbina explains, the industry continues to enjoy exemption from federal rules designed to keep sleep-deprived truck drivers off the road:
Across all industries, highway crashes are a leading cause of death among workers. As a result, federal regulators set strict safety rules for commercial truckers that dictate how long they can drive.But for almost five decades, the oil and gas industry has enjoyed several exemptions to these rules that allow many of its truckers to work longer.
For example, most commercial truckers must stop driving no later than 14 hours after their workday begins. Many oil and gas industry drivers, however, do not have to count time spent waiting at the well site while other crews finish their tasks. These wait times can sometimes stretch over 10 hours.
If most commercial truckers work 60 hours over seven consecutive days, they must take at least 34 hours off so they can get two full nights of sleep. Oil and gas truckers who work that long are required to take only 24 hours off.
The oil field exemptions were granted in the 1960s after officials in the industry argued that its drivers needed more flexibility in their schedules.
Since then, the exemptions have survived repeated attempts to remove them.
Dangers to oil and gas workers and those who share the road with them may increase in the future, Urbina explains, because the thousands of new hydraulic fracturing operations will generate an estimated 500 to 1,500 truck trips for each individual well. Putting workers into trucks after they’ve already worked long shifts may be good for company profits and help keep oil and gas prices low, but it harms the safety of workers and the general public.