By Aaron Corvin
Laden with diesel fuel, the semi-truck trundling north on Highway 30 in Northwest Portland would never reach its destination.
The commercial vehicle swerved off the road and plowed into a train that was not moving. The collision triggered a blaze that halted traffic, forced nearby residents to stay in their homes, and drew firefighters to the scene. The driver of the truck died.
To some observers, the Dec. 13, 2015, crash might have seemed like a headline-grabbing anomaly – a horrible deviation from the otherwise relatively safe and wellregulated world of driving.
To workplace safety experts, however, the high-profile incident put another exclamation point on a disturbing fact: Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death among workers in Oregon and the U.S.
Between 2010 and 2014, 136 people covered by the Oregon workers' compensation system died on the job. Highway vehicles accounted for 38 percent of those deaths. Of 47,718 work-related deaths reported by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics between 2003 and 2011, 17,037 (36 percent) involved motor vehicles.
In 2011 alone, workers' compensation costs related to crash injuries were an estimated $2.4 billion, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. And although motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for truck drivers, the institute says such events lead to far more deaths of other drivers. Although such accidents frequently involve multiple human, environmental, and vehicle factors, most, if not all, such accidents are avoidable.
Best practices for protecting workers from injury or death involving motor vehicles are available to employers who are willing to pay attention and to take precautions. What's more, leaders in the public and private sectors are pushing to develop the next wave of safety measures to further boost motor vehicle safety.
A variety of government agencies play a part in enforcing the rules of the road. Oregon OSHA focuses on helping employers develop effective driver safety programs. It also enforces several work-related motor vehicle rules, including use of seat belts, driver qualification, and securing cargo.
"Many workplace safety professionals – and the regulatory agencies themselves – have simply relied upon law enforcement to address traffic safety issues," said Michael Wood, administrator of Oregon OSHA. "We here at Oregon OSHA consciously set out to change that approach a number of years ago, recognizing that law enforcement will focus on what happens on the road but may disregard workplace factors and expectations that created the risk in the first place."
But keeping workers safe from motor vehicle hazards isn't just about checking off a box next to a rule and moving on. It also takes self-reflective employers who make motor vehicle safety a regular part of how they do business.
"We certainly don't have all the answers when it comes to safety on the roads," Wood said. "But we recognize that change starts when you ask the right questions."
Take, for instance, Funtastic Traveling Shows in Portland. On a daily basis, the longtime provider of carnival entertainment in Oregon and Washington carries out safe motor vehicle practices. The company has 64 semi-trucks, racks up some 300,000 vehicle miles annually, and hauls carnival rides of every kind to entertainment venues big and small.
The company maintains a well-oiled process for keeping workers and the motoring public safe. That includes fine-tuning hydraulic controls, conducting walk-throughs to make sure vehicles are sturdy and secure, assigning certain loads to drivers who have the experience hauling them, and keeping extensive safety and maintenance records.
Moreover, Funtastic keeps its transportation and entertainment operations separate. Drivers focus on safely reaching their destinations. They aren't burdened with the additional tasks of setting up rides and operating them. In this way, drivers get the sleep they need to avoid the hazards of being drowsy while on the road.
"Our drivers just drive," said Ron Burback, president and principal owner of Funtastic. "We are in the transportation and logistics business," he added, punching home the point that Funtastic is as serious about motor vehicle safety as it is about creating family entertainment.
No one agency, company, or person shoulders the responsibility of preventing and reducin motor vehicle accidents. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) understands that perhaps better than anyone.
Although NIOSH has conducted research on workrelated motor vehicle safety for years, the institute only recently intensified that endeavor with the 2010 launch of the Center for Motor Vehicle Safety.
The center aims to strengthen NIOSH's research and prevention activities to reduce on-the-job motor vehicle crashes by bringing together governments, non-governmental organizations, academia, labor, and industry to better identify crash risk factors, develop and evaluate workplace interventions to prevent crashes, and to communicate the results to employers and other stakeholders.
By 2018, the center is expected to achieve multiple goals under its five-year strategic plan. They include providing evidence-based assessments of the effects of long hours of driving and sleepiness on motor vehicle crashes; implementing engineering and technology-based solutions so that prevention does not depend on driver initiative in all situations; and developing a guide to help organizations justify the economic and occupational safety benefits of carrying out a comprehensive motor vehicle safety program.
"Whatever the regulatory environment, the safety of workers who drive on the job is a responsibility shared by many employers, workers, policy makers, vehicle manufacturers, and the research community," NIOSH noted in its five-year plan. "The efforts of all these stakeholders are critical if we are to make meaningful progress in reducing the burden of work-related crashes."
That's not to say employers must wait for the completion of cutting-edge research before they act to bolster motor vehicle safety. Managing driver safety begins with leaders who remain vigilant and who commit to an effective driver safety program for their employees.
To be sure, it's not easy. It takes grit, mindfulness, and teamwork. "It's a juggling act," said Mick Smith, transportation manager for Funtastic. But the company understands why it's important, for reasons of human safety, financial prudence, and reputation.
"We want to be around for a long time," Smith said.
Wear safety belts: With limited exemptions, all Oregon drivers and passengers must use safety belts. Vehicle owners must keep safety belts working properly.
Stay focused on the road: Using a hand-held mobile device to talk or text while driving is against the law in Oregon. Drivers 18 years and older can use a hands-free accessory.
Stay alert: Drowsiness increases your risk of a crash. Signs that you need to stop and rest include difficulty focusing or keeping your head up, frequent blinking or yawning, and drifting in your lane. Get plenty of sleep before leaving on a trip. Drive only during the hours you are normally awake.
Don't drive impaired: Alcohol, certain prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and illegal drugs can all impair a person's ability to drive safely. Drivers who have a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or more are considered intoxicated under Oregon law.
Keep your cool: If you encounter an aggressive driver, concentrate on your driving and make every attempt to get out of the way. Avoid eye contact, ignore gestures and name calling, and refuse to return them.
Watch out for pedestrians: Pedestrians have the right of way at all intersections, even those that don't have painted crosswalks.
Secure tools and equipment: Unsecured and poorly secured items can become airborne and can harm you or your passengers, or those in vehicles behind you. Make sure such items are properly stored and secured – inside and outside your vehicle.
Consider the following items to prepare for emergencies:
Know where the items are stored in the vehicle and how to use them.
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