The oil and natural gas industry is a vital part of the economy. However, both the nature of work performed and the sheer scale of operations can lead to a number of common and unique hazards for employees in these fields.
From safely handling oil and gas to working alongside potentially dangerous heavy machinery, employees need strong health and safety training, the right personal protective equipment and solid situational awareness to stay in good health.
One area that can lead to significant issues, but isn't always at the forefront of the minds of health and safety specialists, is the danger workers face when driving during or after long, mentally and physically taxing shifts.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) highlighted these dangers in a recent document aimed at reducing the dangers of fatigued driving in the industry.
Many health and safety concerns revolve around fatigued driving
Although employees driving while tired can happen in nearly any industry, certain unique factors make this problem especially dangerous in the world of oil and natural gas.
For starters, many oil and gas field workers drive long distances, traveling at the beginning or end of a work day. Driving back to their home or company-provided lodging after many hours on the job can put employees at a higher risk for fatigue and falling asleep while behind the wheel.
Moreover, nearby bunkhouses and similar sites may not have guaranteed space for workers coming off a shift, who may then decide to travel a longer distance home or to another location. Per NIOSH, there was an occasion when three workers finished a 20-hour shift and realized there was no space in a bunkhouse. They decided to venture home – a 10-hour journey. The driver fell asleep and crashed after just 25 miles, with two of the three workers dying as a result.
These industry-specific issues are difficult to overcome on their own and are made harder to combat by the universal causes of fatigued driving. For example, workers leaving a jobsite in darkness are predisposed to bodily signals that induce a sleep-ready state, even when they're engaging in an activity like driving.
Long shifts, combined with many hours spent awake overall, can contribute to increased fatigue, and so can long drives on relatively flat, straight roads.
Addressing and minimizing fatigued driving for oil and gas workers
The good news for health and safety professionals concerned about fatigued driving is that combating this problem boils down to common sense.
There are no detailed, highly technical standards for addressing the issue. However, there is plenty of guidance that helps fight fatigue. Items highlighted by NIOSH include:
- Prioritizing 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
- Avoiding long drives the day a hitch begins or ends, instead traveling the preceding or following day.
- Taking breaks during long drives.
- Checking in with friends and family during trips before or after a hitch.
- Maintaining good physical health to reduce the overall chances of fatigue.
- Being aware of company policies about fatigue management and travel planning.
- If driving on the job, being ready to temporarily stop if significant fatigue is felt.
The major issue for health and safety specialists is ensuring employees follow these recommendations.
Sharing practical advice and making sure employees understand their responsibilities and options for avoiding fatigue built into existing company rules can help get the message out about driving fatigue and keep workers safe.