Drowsy Driving and Worker Safety

At the end of a grueling 24-hour shift at a natural gas site in a remote part of Texas, Daniel Zambrano climbed behind the wheel of a van carrying six of his co-workers.

Before long, fatigue started to overtake Zambrano. The 26-year-old from Kilgore, TX, allegedly dozed off as he drove along Highway 72, and the full-size van slammed into the back of a school bus that had stopped to pick up a child.

The front of the van was crushed, and the vehicle toppled onto its passenger side. Zambrano and two others were killed. The van tore a hole into the rear right corner of the school bus, but no children were injured.

This accident, as well as the video below, are just two examples of drowsy driving and its ramifications.  The National Transportation Safety Board says driver fatigue contributes to more than 100,000 crashes a year in the United States.

Workers at Risk

The oil and gas industry is particularly at risk to drowsy driving.  Investigators say this is because these workers tend to work long and extended shifts and make lengthy trips to and from worksites.  Also, many of these sites are temporary and workers may choose to commute up to three hours from home.  These travel times fit into the category of a “mega commute.”  This is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as traveling 90 minutes or more and 50 miles or more to work.

Almost 600,000 full-time workers are mega commuters, according to a 2013 report by the Census Bureau, which cited a changing employment landscape as a reason why people are commuting longer for job opportunities.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) will survey oil and gas workers in the future about their commuting behaviors and on-the-job driving requirements.

Creating Policies

Employers across the country are trying to come up with new ways to combat this serious problem.  Depending on the circumstances, employers can reduce the risk of drowsy driving with a bit of planning.  Experts recommend employers develop and implement fatigue management policies.  These policies could include the following:

  • Train workers about the risks of drowsy driving.
  • Provide safer travel options, such as by bus, from remote worksites.
  • Empower workers to seek overnight accommodations when they are too tired to drive safely.
  • Offer voluntary screening for sleep apnea.
  • Implement voluntary, structured napping programs during parts of the work shift.

Employers could also create a similar program to the European Union’s Working Time Directive.  This requires a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours and at least one full day off work per week.  Experts say when people are working several consecutive days or nights, they build up high levels of fatigue.  This, in turn, may lead to fatigue-related crashes.

Policies could help protect employees who have logged long hours on the job. Similarly, employers can protect workers who take cross-country or transatlantic flights by requiring that they rest before driving from the airport.

Employer Resources

While many employers are becoming more in tune to drowsy driving, there is still a lot that needs to be done.  There are several resources available to help employers, including one resource from the National Sleep Foundation. 

Another option for employers would be to create toolbox talks and other programs from information included in the North American Fatigue Management Program.

Smaller programs have popped up to help employers on the local level. The Stark County (OH) Sheriff’s Department created a “Workplace Driver Safety Toolkit” to help employers.  The guidebook recommends employers encourage workers to exercise, eat well and take breaks during the workday to help maintain sufficient energy levels and prevent fatigued driving.

Has your employer implemented a policy to prevent drowsy driving?  Is it working?  If not, how could it be improved?  Answer these questions in the HSE Press Forum or comment below!