North Slope: No place for cowboys behind the wheel

Posted: Thursday, September 04, 2003

PRUDHOE BAY (AP) The North Slope oil patch is a Far North high lonesome, with its broad tundra plains, dusty roads and work camps scattered like frontier towns along the horizon.

But it's no place for cowboys, at least not behind the wheel of a company truck.

Get busted up here for speeding or not wearing your seat belt or talking on your cell phone, and it can cost you your job. Quick.

In fact, despite the open range, the absence of traffic lights or school zones and seldom any state troopers on patrol, the Slope might be the strictest place for motorists in Alaska, or anywhere.

It's part of a drive, accelerating in recent months, to improve safety around Prudhoe Bay and the Slope's other big oil fields.

Working with highly flammable oil and gas is dangerous, but bad driving is an even bigger hazard, oil industry managers say.

''Globally, we kill more people driving than almost anything else we do,'' said Ruth Germany-Bice, an operations manager for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., which runs Prudhoe, the largest oil field in North America.

Not just anybody can drive at Prudhoe, access to which is restricted for security reasons.

Field workers first need courses on how to handle ice and snow, how to maneuver in or around heavy equipment, and so on. Even then, a driving instructor might ride shotgun for a while to observe.

Once trained, workers tooling around mainly in muscular crew-cab pickups must heel to a string of road rules ordinary drivers might find ridiculous:

Headlights on at all times. Seat belts too.

Safety glasses mandatory for driver as well as passengers to guard against flying gravel that has blasted out many a windshield and side glass at Prudhoe.

No talking on cell phones or radios.

Put a plastic liner on the ground when filling up to catch any fuel drips.

And don't forget your 360 a walk all the way around your truck before you depart so you don't back up and break something. Subzero cold is no excuse.

In recent months, BP instructed its security contractor, Purcell Services, to have its officers start writing tickets for any violation of these rules.

A ticket doesn't get you a fine but something much worse, Germany-Bice said. It means a talk with your boss, a letter in your file, a trip home without pay or even dismissal.

What triggered the crackdown? Nothing in particular, Germany-Bice said. Just a rising sense that driving must be safer wherever London-based BP operates, she said.

The rules also apply to BP's many contractors. One of the biggest, Schlumberger Oilfield Services, which specializes in wringing more oil from aging wells, might be even more stringent. Get caught once not wearing your seat belt in a Schlumberger truck, and you're done.

''You're fired immediately. A one-strike rule, if you want,'' said Douglas Stephens, the company's Alaska manager.

Because the Slope is an industrial zone that mixes heavy equipment, caribou and geese, snow and ice, Stephens said he doesn't consider himself qualified to drive there, even though he's the boss.

''I made a rule that I'm not allowed to drive on the Slope,'' he said. ''I'm based in Anchorage. I'm used to city driving. That means I have to be picked up and driven around.''

Schlumberger equips all its trucks with devices that beep in the cab and inform managers when a driver breaks the speed limit.

The oil company managers say the toughest penalties, such as a suspension or firing, are rare but they happen.

Purcell security officer Lou Poss has worked at Prudhoe since before the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was finished and millions of barrels of crude started flowing in 1977.

The former Georgia state trooper spends his days running the Slope's 400-plus miles of gravel roads, which link oil fields where workers live and labor in hulking modules set on blocks to keep them from sinking into the permafrost.

''People were crazy back during the construction era in the '70s. This place was like a racetrack up here,'' Poss said during a recent 28-mile drive between the Prudhoe and Milne Point fields.

Like everybody else, his windshield is cracked from what oil field workers call ''projectile gravel.'' He keeps four sets of goggles on his dash for any riders who don't have the required eye gear.

As with oil and cold, the Slope has no shortage of speed limit signs. Around living quarters or well pads, the limit is as low as 5 mph. Out on the Spine Road, the equivalent of an oil field interstate, it's a scorching 45 mph.

All the driving rules can be annoying, but most guys don't complain, said David Boyd, a BP field operator who runs from well to well.

''It's weird. I find myself using safety glasses more at home for things,'' said Boyd, who lives in Wasilla when he's not on the Slope. ''The safety program, we all buy into it pretty good.''

Fellow operator Dan Hejl agrees.

''I was a replacement for one of the guys who got killed,'' Hejl said, referring to an indelible moment in Prudhoe Bay lore: the New Year's Day wreck of 1985, when a tractor-trailer skidded into a crew van on the Spine Road, killing five people.

More recently, the Slope nearly saw more fatalities last year when two trucks hit head-on while simultaneously passing through the plume of a snowblower.

BP's managers hope the tougher driving standards will save lives and property. In the lobby of Prudhoe's comfortable living modules, bulletin boards chart the progress: 50 accidents and nearly $329,000 in damage in 2001 vs. 11 accidents and $131,000 in damage as of mid-August this year.

Former state Public Safety Commissioner Ron Otte, now general manager for Purcell, said he doubts BP's driving rules would fly in Anchorage, where he once was police chief.

''Take people's cell phones away from them when they're driving? I'm not sure how easy that would be,'' he said.

But driving really is different on the Slope, and Otte thinks BP and its contractors are headed the right way.

''It's a harsh environment up there. People go up for two or three weeks at a time. They're literally working 12 hours a day, getting a bite to eat and going to sleep. If any of us worked those same conditions in Anchorage, there'd be some significant accident rates.''

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