UK petroleum tanker operations trade dispute: an opportunity to remind ourselves of the human factors aspects of driving operations

In many industries and many parts of the world, driving is one of the largest hazards, either because of the nature of the industry, the amount of driving undertaken, the overall standard or culture of driving in that country, or because for the majority of workers driving to and from work is the biggest hazard faced.

Since March 2012 the Unite Union, which represents 90% of fuel tanker drivers in the UK, has been in negotiations with haulage companies over ‘fragmented working practices’ which it claims are affecting not only working conditions but also health and safety.  Details of negotiations and said working conditions are not public knowledge and mainly of concern to those involved in the dispute – but whilst this issue is a ‘hot topic’ it would be a wasted opportunity not to remind ourselves of some of the human factors issues involved in driving operations (and work-related driving) more generally.

Road incidents

It is thought that human failure is a factor in 95% of road incidents.  However a higher percentage of resources go on improving vehicle roadworthiness and construction. Whilst improvements to vehicles can help reduce risk – often by helping the driver ‘control the controllable’ (e.g. utilising ABS braking systems) managing the human and organisational factors affecting driving operations (often out of the direct control of the driver) can be a crucial and effective means to prevent incidents.

For example, “[in the UK] driver sleepiness is estimated to account for around one fifth of accidents on major roads, and is responsible for around 300 deaths per year” (EI Human factors briefing note no. 5).  Fatigue is not something directly controllable; the various factors contributing to fatigue need to be managed instead.  For instance, recognising the added risks presented by long commutes, especially when preceding or succeeding a long shift, in some industries and countries there is a growing trend towards accounting for commuting time when setting shift patterns (for example see Fatigue management for the Western Australian mining industry).

Fatigue is only one potential human factor in road accidents.

A recent study found that a driver’s ability to focus on the driving environment varies depending on the ‘cognitive demand’ placed by non-driving activities. The deeper the level of thought in a driver’s mind, the less he/she focuses on his/her surroundings, and the more likely he/she is to be in an incident.

“Good drivers routinely scan the road ahead and around them, looking for potential hazards that they might need to react to. When drivers face even light levels of cognitive demand, they scan the road less”.  This is why using mobile phones and other devices whilst driving can be detrimental to human performance and illegal in many countries.

A question to pose may be what constitutes ‘cognitive demand’?  Is it just physically distracting activities, like using a mobile phone, or also mental distractions, such as daydreaming, worrying about personal issues, etc.?

Managing the risk of driver distraction comes down to influencing driver behaviour and attitudes.  As ever with occupational human factors, efforts to do so focus on the individual, the job/task and the organisation, through applying consistent rules and standards of working – such as appropriate disciplinary actions for unsafe driving behaviours  (see OGP’s publication on the use of life saving rules) – providing training and procedures, managing the workload effectively, and developing the right organisational culture through sending the right messages to the drivers about what is important.

Hearts and Minds ‘Driving for Excellence’ is a publically available training tool published by the Energy Institute, designed to improve both driver and supervisor hazard awareness and journey planning skills. Containing ready-to-use short training exercises it provides an effective and simple-to-use means of changing driver and supervisor behaviour, improving their appreciation of hazards, and improving the culture around driving operations.

Loading and unloading

Road tanker drivers aren’t just expected to drive but also to load and unload product, whether it be petroleum product or chemicals.  Simple human failures here have the potential to result in complicated (and financially expensive) consequences.  For example:

“A road tanker driver was making a delivery to a customer. One compartment of his tanker was connected to the customer’s diesel tank and was already discharging. The driver then made the connection between the customer’s unleaded tank (tank no. 4) and compartment 4 on his vehicle. He opened the valve and a few moments later realised that he should have connected tank 4 to compartment 3 on the tanker. By then, approximately 600 litres of diesel had been delivered. Almost 3 000 litres of unleaded petrol was contaminated by diesel.” (EI Human factors briefing note no. 15).

Two main factors contributed to this incident: firstly it was found that in this company drivers were paid bonuses based on deliveries made and distance travelled, and so were highly incentivised to meet delivery schedules; secondly, forecourts had to close whilst unloading was taking place, and so forecourt staff often put pressure on drivers to complete unloading quickly.  These factors caused the driver to rush the delivery and not take the time to double-check the connections were correct.

With the intent of understanding incident causation and making improvements, the EI commissioned research and developed Guidance on reducing human failure in petroleum product distribution loading and unloading operations: this explores the human failures behind 22 loading and unloading incidents within three companies, both the immediate causes and root causes.

It found that 1 incident was due to an excessive workload, 2 were due to inconsistency in operations, 5 due to the design of the tasks themselves, 7 due to the design of equipment, and 16, by far the majority, were due to there being a ‘performance culture’ – i.e. getting the job done quickly was considered more important than getting the job done correctly/safely.

This guide provides a series of checklists of contributors to human failure in loading and unloading operations, focusing on:

  • the workplace: for example, are loading areas easy to manoeuvre into and out of? Once parked is there enough space to move around the vehicle? At the delivery point is labelling clear?
  • the tasks: are tasks so routine drivers do them on ‘autopilot’? Are there incentive schemes to make drivers rush jobs? Do drivers need to take shortcuts in the tasks due to time pressure?
  • the selection and attitudes of personnel: is driver training of a high standard? Is driver morale high?
  • the organisation: is there inconsistency in the industry regarding equipment and facilities? Is equipment well-maintained? Is the system to report incidents effective?

Where problems are present, guidance is also provided to solve these.

Managing risk

Driving operations pose a hazard in many industries and there are a number of tools and guidance available to help manage that risk, much of which is widely applicable with a little read-across.

But perhaps it’s worth asking whether managing driving risk is comparable to managing risk in other areas of operation, bearing in mind that, unlike onsite operations, there are a number of variables outside the control of haulier companies – such as the behaviour of other road users, the layout of forecourts, etc.?

2 Responses to UK petroleum tanker operations trade dispute: an opportunity to remind ourselves of the human factors aspects of driving operations

  1. […] shifts longer than 12 hours should be avoided.  As previously reported on HOF Blog, there is also an increasing trend in some industries to account for commuting time when setting shift lengths and patterns, recognising that work and […]

  2. alan says:

    There should be an efficient management which should analyze the drawback or loophole which is causing these accidents and try to rectify them by changing their strategies and shifts load and all other factors that need modification and continuously monitor the working environment to make a safe place to work.

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