Oilfield workers at higher risk of fatal motor vehicle accidents

Take an industry where the workers are disproportionately young, male and work long hours, driving pickup trucks on rural highways.

The result, according to a recent study, is that 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.

Those who work for smaller companies, particularly for well-service companies, are at especially high risk.

More than one-third of the oil-field workers killed in on-the-job traffic accidents between 2003 and 2009 were working in Texas, a reflection of the industry’s strength here.

Researcher Kyla Retzer noted that the period covered by the study ended before the shale drilling boom took off and suggested it also has implications for other parts of the country.

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“Texas had by far the largest number of rigs,” said Retzer, lead author of the study and a program coordinator with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “At the time the study was done, North Dakota didn’t have many at all, but they are growing at a fast, fast pace. It is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed in North Dakota.”

The study, published online by Accident Analysis & Prevention, was drawn from an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retzer said she and her co-authors found that 202 oil and gas extraction workers died in motor vehicle accidents while on the job between 2003 and 2009.

That included people working for operators, drilling contractors and well service companies, but not landmen or other categories of employees.

Motor vehicle accidents accounted for 28 percent of all work-related deaths among people in the industry during that period, making it the leading cause of on-the-job deaths, according to the study.

Among other major industry groups, Retzer said only people working in transportation and warehousing had a higher rate of vehicle-related fatalities.

Industry groups referred questions about the study to the Texas Department of Transportation, saying it was developing campaigns to address driver safety.

Department spokeswoman Veronica Breyer said the campaign hasn’t yet been launched but will address safety in parts of the state where oil and natural gas production is underway.

Some of Retzer’s findings will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in the oilfields.

More than half of the fatalities involved a pickup truck, which don’t require drivers to have a commercial driver’s license.

“Many people are concerned about those larger vehicles, but we also need to be thinking about the driver of the pickup truck,” Retzer said.

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.

Lap and shoulder belts can reduce the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent in light trucks, Retzer wrote.

Previous studies found that not wearing a seat belt is part of the culture in the oilfield, she said.

Seat belt use is also lower in rural areas, where drilling is more common.

“And this industry has a lot of young workers, and risk-taking may be more common among this age group,” she said.

Workers at companies with fewer than 20 employees were at highest risk, according to the study, and Retzer said small companies generally are less likely to have an employee dedicated to safety and training.

She recommends the government and industry organizations work together to make safety training programs and other tools available to small companies.