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Time To Take the Keys?




A recent piece of news that somehow slipped under the radar locally involved the reported low-ball commentary by Democratic State Rep. Mike Sturla of Lancaster County about laborers involved in drilling and gas-related industries. Sturla was asked by a capitalwire.com reporter via email to comment on the impact of the natural gas industry on the state.

What Sturla affectively said was that rig hands, tanker drivers, pipelayers, and their ilk were getting drunk every night, spreading sexually transmitted diseases “amongst the womenfolk,” and driving up the cost of rental housing. OK, that last one…guilty, but it’s not the fault of the workers. Sturla said much more, some more of it probably true, but the aforementioned is what drew the ire of Republicans, including Reps. Tina Pickett, Sandra Major, and Matt Baker, each of whom expressed offense and jumped to the defense of the workers.

“These comments show the lack of comprehension of what is going on here,” Pickett stated.

“Talk about wrong-headed, misinformed, archaic, and just shocking,” Major told reporters.

“The people of this commonwealth deserve better than hyperbole or fear-mongering,” Baker remarked.

I believe, as each of these elected officials does, that the large majority of the men and women who have moved to the area to fill key positions at various installations associated with the gas industry are responsible, friendly, hard-working souls who are looking to better themselves. Almost every person whom I’ve interviewed on the topic has said the same. There are, of course, a few rotten eggs in every bunch, and, over the past few months, a growing number of those rotten eggs have come crashing to the forefront. Justly or not, they threaten to cast a stink on laborers new to the area or the industry as a whole.

DUIs among industry-related workers appear to be on the rise, but the more disturbing trend is the obvious recreational use of company vehicles by employees. I have yet to read a police or magisterial district judge report in which a company owner admits to consenting to the personal use of a company truck after one of his crew members was found drunk in a ditch in it. In many cases, these vehicles aren’t merely pickups, they’re multi-axle, heavy duty work trucks, often loaded with tools and other apparatus. I’m already intimidated by these vehicles on a crowded roadway. I don’t want to imagine that the drivers may be drunk or high.

In this week’s Rocket-Courier alone, there are details about four incidents involving seven people in which work trucks and drugs or alcohol became a dangerous mix. The men were from Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, and North Dakota. One of two accidents proved fatal, resulting also in a serious injury to the driver.

Joseph Jaster of Grafton, ND, will be charged with DUI and numerous driving offenses for losing control of a welding rig truck on Wyalusing-New Albany Road in Terry Township early on Sunday morning. He was thrown clear of the vehicle and survived the crash, which sheered a large electric pole. His friend, Devon Miller of Bald Knob, Arkansas, was not as lucky and was crushed underneath the heavy truck, which landed on the passenger side.

Jim Bob Young of Kirbyville, Texas, was found to be high on bath salts while operating a new Kenworth truck with twice the allowable weight after sunset, all seriously dangerous violations.

I suspect that many of these men have come here without their own vehicles, and they are permitted limited use of company trucks to primarily get themselves back and forth to work. I can also imagine that hanging out in an RV park or hotel room can get pretty boring, which inevitably leads to some of these guys sneaking back out in the work truck for a beer or two. Not very smart, but not unbelievable. To be afforded the use of a company vehicle is an honor and a privilege. The Keelers let me take our delivery truck home overnight recently while I waited for a blown tire for my own truck to be fixed. I had no assignments that night, and I actually really wanted to go out, but I didn’t. I’ll admit, however, that having to borrow that same truck for a month would test my resolve.

Nonetheless, Keeler Newspapers would bear the ultimate responsibility if I were involved in an accident with that truck, especially if I had been drinking or doing drugs. Vehicle loans are a rare occurrence at this company, but I’m sensing that the practice is commonplace among the gas industry, perhaps in part because sending the rig truck home with an employee is easier than having to arrange for someplace safe and legal to park it.

I don’t have enough facts to attribute the uptick in work truck-related incidents to anything in particular. Maybe there are simply more workers than there were before. Maybe they are drinking more because they are bored and can’t find much else to do. Maybe they are taking more chances as they become comfortable with the area.

Maybe it’s time to take the keys. Considering the aforementioned crimes involving laborers in work vehicles, it would seem reasonable for companies who do allow employees to take trucks home to at least acknowledge this trend and consider or confirm some guidelines for personal use of vehicles. Perhaps imposing some tangible penalties on the workers who break even the simplest of rules would either make them more responsible or flag them as untrustworthy. Either way, a few bad eggs would be taken off the road, and the number of accidents and DUIs involving laborers might decrease.

As for Rep. Sturla, whom I’m embarrassment to admit I voted for as a former Lancaster County resident, more of his opinions about gas industry workers and responses to them can be found at http://PAHouseGOPNews.com/viewbroadcast.aspx?ID=2374.




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