Should oil field truckers be banned from driving after working 14 hours?

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 just 10 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 Mr. Roth.

About two months before the fatal crash, Mr. Roth nearly died in a similar accident when another co-worker with the same company fell asleep at the wheel after a long shift and ran the company’s truck into a pole. In 2009, Mr. Roth’s employer  was penalized in New York, Pennsylvania and Utah for violations like “requiring or permitting” its oil field truckers to drive after working for 14 hours, the legal limit.

Over the past decade, more than 300 oil and gas workers like Mr. Roth 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 safety and health experts.

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

“Just because you are on an oil field site does not make you any less vulnerable to the effects of fatigue!” Garr Farrell, an oil service driver in Ore City, Tex.,  wrote last year to federal highway safety regulators. In his letter, Mr. Farrell complained that his managers had used the oil field exemptions to force him to wait, without anywhere to sleep, for 36 hours at one well site before he could unload his drilling supplies and get back on the highway.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board  said it “strongly opposed” the oil field exemptions because they raise the risk of crashes.

This threat will grow substantially in coming years, safety advocates warn. According to federal officials, 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.

The new drilling has been an economic boon to the country, adding millions of dollars in local tax revenues and royalty payments and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, many of them providing high pay to unskilled laborers in areas with double-digit unemployment.

But the jobs are also hazardous, with fatality rates that are seven times the national average across all industries. Nearly a third of the 648 deaths of oil field workers from 2003 through 2008 were in highway crashes, according to the most recent data analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By contrast, highway crashes caused roughly a fifth of workplace fatalities across all industries in 2010.

“The growth of this industry is a big concern because it’s adding so many more trucks on the roads and its drivers don’t have to follow the same rules as others,” said Henry Jasny, a lawyer for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Bending the Rules

In 2005, as the drilling boom accelerated, federal labor officials noticed a worrisome trend: fatalities among oil and gas workers rose 15 percent from 2003 to 2004. After investigating, the C.D.C. found that with the growth of the industry, not only were more workers dying but, more surprising, the fatality rate was increasing, meaning the relative risk was rising. Shifts grew longer, more inexperienced workers were hired and older rigs were being pressed into service, the agency concluded.

“Unless changes are made to increase worker safety, the high fatality rates described in this report are likely to continue,” the agency warned, citing the growth of the industry and its trucking exemptions.

Some worker safety experts point to other factors contributing to the industry’s fatality rate. Drug use is common among workers at some sites. Few workers are unionized, meaning they are less able to complain about safety problems without fear of being fired.

Some experts have called for increased oversight. An analysis by The New York Times of more than 50,000 inspection reports indicates that as the number of drilling rigs rose by more than 22 percent in 2011 from the prior year, the number of inspections at such work sites fell by 12 percent.

David Michaels, an assistant secretary of labor with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said that his staff was aggressive about enforcement but that companies were not required to alert his agency when their truckers crashed on public roads. Nor do they have to inform his agency when drilling starts, making timely inspections difficult, he added.

By contrast, mining companies are required to alert the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration about new sites. While there are far fewer active oil and gas drilling sites in the country than underground and surface mining sites, more drilling industry workers than miners typically die each year.

Oil and gas workers also crash because their trucks are frequently in disrepair, the police say. For example, data from the Pennsylvania State Police indicates that 40 percent of 2,200 oil and gas industry trucks inspected from 2009 to this February were in such bad condition that they had to be taken off the roads.

Oil service companies also often circumvent highway safety rules.

For example, Mr. Roth’s employer, Energy Services, based in Grand Junction, Colo., was  cited repeatedly in 2009 for allowing or requiring truckers to drive after the legal limit of 14 hours per shift. The company lost its federal transportation registration and was fined $21,700 in 2010 for various road safety violations.

But soon after losing its registration, Energy Services officials said in court papers that they had teamed up with another company, Energy Specialties, to continue operating with a new federal registration number, crossing out one company’s name and writing by hand the other’s name over it in drivers’ logs.

Mary Stacy, a lawyer for Energy Services, said the company declined to comment. Energy Specialties also declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

In March, the Government Accountability Office criticized federal highway regulators for their failure to detect commercial truckers — widely known as “chameleon carriers” — that use shell companies to get around safety rules.

Reward and Risk

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, Mr. Roth, 36, was delighted when he landed a job for nearly $14 an hour with Energy Services.

“He just kept saying, ‘Baby, this is going to change everything, I promise,’ ” said his wife, Crystal Roth, 30, adding that they were just happy to no longer have to eat day-old castoffs from a bakery for dinner.

But Ms. Roth said she knew almost immediately 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 said.

On the day of his  fatal crash, Mr. Roth’s back was still sore from another truck accident about 10 weeks earlier. No one died in that crash, but it was also caused by a co-worker who fell asleep at the wheel, according to Ms. Roth.

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,” Mike Lowther, one of the crew members, recalled being instructed. Mr. Lowther, who was driving, was injured in the crash that killed Mr. Roth, and he is suing the company, as is Mr. Roth’s wife.

Energy Services 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, Jestus Wade, “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.

Questioning Exemptions

The number of Americans killed in auto crashes has been falling, but the number of deaths from crashes involving large trucks climbed 8.7 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to federal transportation data.

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.

In 2000, federal highway authorities concluded that removing some of the exemptions would improve highway safety by allowing “drivers to get the restorative sleep the research suggests they need.” After the industry lobbied Congress, the exemptions were left intact.

Other industries like utilities and construction also have exemptions for some of their truckers, and Shashunga Clayton, a spokeswoman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, emphasized that the oil field exemptions did not apply to all trucks in the oil and gas industry.

But many safety advocates say oil and gas companies routinely apply the exemptions to vehicles that are not covered by them, like the type of pickup truck that Mr. Roth was in or the large tankers that haul waste and water. Enforcing the rules is difficult, said the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an association of police and highway authorities, because federal regulators do not provide a list of trucks that qualify for the exemptions.

In 2010, federal authorities proposed revisions to highway regulations. Dozens of executives from trucking and oil and gas companies  submitted comments.

Changing the rules would “require more drivers to do the same amount of work in a time when we are having difficulty recruiting enough drivers,”  wrote Kenneth Aker, operations manager for Elite Transportation, which has offices in Ohio and South Dakota. Others argued that companies would have to hire more inexperienced drivers, making roads less safe.

In written comments to federal regulators,  safety advocates — like the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency responsible for accident investigations — disagreed.

Some oil field truckers also questioned the exemptions.

“Oil field crews only work 12 hours and go home, or to a motel,” wrote Mr. Farrell, the Texas oil service driver who complained to regulators. “It is UNSAFE to expect truck drivers to work longer than that.”

In December, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration declined to eliminate the oil and gas industry exemptions, explaining that the exemptions had “been in place for nearly 50 years” and were clear enough.