"In the Bud"

Canada’s well-paying oil and gas sector has attracted many green hands. But the recent collapse in oil prices has turned up the heat on the industry, putting in motion a series of coping strategies from job cuts to production clawbacks. Can cheap oil also put a dent on young-worker safety?

By any measure, the oil and gas industry is a dangerous place in which to work. Long shifts, working with combustible materials, operating heavy machinery, exposure to toxic gases in confined spac¬es and working in remote locations are some of the risk factors.

For oil and gas workers aged between 15 and 24, their inexperience serves only to exacerbate the risk. And that inexperience can be injurious — even deadly — for workers of any age. In 2014 alone, there were six reported deaths at, or near, one Suncor Energy Inc. operations in Alberta, including one worker who sus¬tained fatal injuries in an incident involving heavy mining equipment.

“This industry attracts a lot of workers, largely because of the pay scale and the work style,” says Paul Barnes, Atlantic Canada and Arctic manager with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) in St. John’s. “There are no recruiting issues. A lot of technical-trade graduates get picked up right away.”

Indeed, attracting and retaining new workers remains crucial for Canada’s oil and gas sector, which must hire between 125,000 and 150,000 new workers over the next decade to replace losses due to turnover and retirement-related attrition, the Petroleum Human Resources Council in Calgary reported in 2013.

As young and inexperienced workers come on board to fill those vacancies, safety can be a concern, as young employees tend to have a much higher injury rate than older workers. According to WorkSafeBC’s statistical overview of the sector, which includes min¬ing, 23 per cent of young workers in British Columbia were injured between 2009 and 2013, compared with only five per cent of workers over 55 years of age.

But the oil and gas industry is not unique in this regard. Recent examples include a 15-year-old con-struction worker who was killed last July after becom¬ing entangled in a conveyor at a worksite near Wintering Hills, Alberta. Christopher Lawrence, an employee of Calgary-based Arjon Construction Ltd., was working at a gravel-crushing site between the towns of Drumheller and Bassano when the incident occurred. In the same month, an 18-year-old mechan¬ic died after being crushed by a van at an auto-repair shop in Sherbrooke, Quebec. It was reported that the young man had just finished his studies and had recently started working at the garage.

Generally, young workers are at a higher risk of injury than those of any other age group. WorkSafeBC finds that between 2005 and 2009, 28 workers under the age of 25 on average were hurt on the job every day in the province. Each week, 41 young workers sus¬tained serious, life-altering injuries. The effect on the system: 1.2 million days lost and $283 million in workers’ compensation claims. In 2010, 2.3 out of every 100 young people working full-time in the prov¬ince were injured.

Joel Carr, the national representative for health, safety and the environment with Unifor, Canada’s larg¬est private-sector union in Toronto, points out that age is not really the issue. “What we are really talking about is inexperience,” he says.

A 2012 report prepared by Art Deane, SafeThink training manager with HDC Human Development Consultants Ltd. in Edmonton, notes that more than 50 per cent of young workers injured on the job were hurt within the first six months of their employment. In 2006, 97 young workers between 15 and 29 died in workplaces across Canada.

Young people do not have the hands-on experience of older, more mature workers, nor do they possess the insight and balanced response that usually comes with age, although the latter may be more a function of physiological development than inexperience. In his report, Some Canadian Workplace Injury and Fatality Facts, Deane references neuroscience research that discovered that the part of the brain involved with making sound judgements and controlling emotions is the last to develop in young people.

An Encouraging Trend

While the oil and gas sector is a hazardous profession, the industry has been lauded for its emphasis on safety. “Our experience with the offshore sector is they don’t do anything unless it can be done safely, which is a factor in preventing workplace injuries,” says Sarah Reeves, spokesperson for the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

Volodymyr Paslavskyi, president of the Young Professionals and Skilled Workers Association in Toronto, agrees. “I think Canadian companies would rather stop hiring new labour rather than cut safety corners,” he says.

In its 2014 progress report, the CAPP notes that since 2009, there has been an 11 per cent decline in injury frequency in Canada. The improvement, CAPP says, is even more noteworthy when put into context: it occurred at a time of considerable industry growth and a 49 per cent overall increase in the hours employ¬ees and contractors worked over the last five years.

That positive trend, the report adds, is counterbal¬anced by two factors: an increase in industry fatalities in 2013, including a doubling of fatalities from four to eight, and a levelling-off in recent years of what the industry calls total recordable injury frequency. Improvements have since plateaued.

Slips, trips, falls and hazards associated with work¬ing around heavy machinery are among the most common hazards for oil and gas workers, reports Brookes Merritt, spokesperson for Alberta Human Services in Edmonton. “Falls from height are among the most commonly occurring, preventable injuries across all industry sectors,” he notes.

In British Columbia, 38 per cent of serious-injury claims in the oil and gas sector from 2009 to 2013 were attributed to the worker being struck by an object, 14 per cent were the result of falling from an elevation and another 14 per cent were caused by the worker being caught in something like a piece of equipment.

Prepping for Danger

Two aspects of working in the oil and gas sector are particularly dangerous: handling hazardous materials and exposure to toxic gases. Hazardous materials like drilling mud pose a significant risk. Also known as drilling fluid, it is a heavy, sticky mixture used in oil and gas drilling operations to help carry rock cuttings to the surface, as well as lubricate and cool the drill bit. Barnes says the mixture has to be prepared before use, and “a lot of hazardous chemicals are mixed in.”

Exposure to toxic gases is also a concern, as hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S) or sour gas — a colourless, flammable, toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs — occurs naturally in crude petroleum and natural gas. Toxic at very low concentrations, H2S causes one to lose the sense of smell quickly by paralyzing the olfac¬tory nerve. The gas is heavier than air and may accu¬mulate in low-lying areas. “A lot of thought goes into detecting that [gas] and possible leakage,” Barnes says.

In view of the numerous occupational hazards, part of the training that many oil and gas workers receive can be classified into two categories: basic and site-specific. Basic training helps workers put into practice appropriate safety measures for common dangers, while the latter ensures that they are trained for spe¬cific sites and the tools of the trade in that workplace, which “alerts them to the hazards with a particular set of equipment,” says Cameron MacGillivray, Calgary-based president and chief executive officer of Enform, the safety association for Canada’s upstream oil and gas industry.

Organizations like Enform offer a list of courses ranging from artificial lift systems, bear awareness and chainsaw competency to detection and control of flam¬mable substances. Last year, MacGillivray says, Enform issued 340,000 training certificates to workers who have successfully completed these programs.

“We train for process safety,” MacGillivray says. He adds that training needs to be upgraded constantly, because more worker practices and administrative and engineering controls are created as the complexity of the oil and gas sector increases. The association also shares learning by disseminat¬ing safety alerts when accidents occur. “We shared 25 of those alerts last year with 10,000 contacts in the industry,” MacGillivray reports.

Mentor Matters

Education is essential, but training needs to go beyond the classroom. Mentoring is also necessary, Carr says. “People are setting out and working with little or no exposure, to someone who has been doing it for some time.”

He notes that many oil and gas employees come from farming, in which they worked long hours out-doors with heavy equipment. But new immigrants joining the industry often do not have this grounding. “You need an experienced person to inculcate newer and younger workers,” Carr advises.

Paslavskyi points out that one of the major hazards for young workers in the industry is ignoring safety procedures and not using common sense. In some cases, he observes, that danger comes from the situa¬tions into which they are thrust.

“Some older, skilled workers do not want to do dirty jobs themselves, so they ask newbies to do them instead. This is where accidents may happen if proto¬col is not followed and proper instruction is not given,” Paslavskyi says.

Mentors would clearly help here by giving young workers a sense of what they should be doing and the confidence to say “no” when a job does not reflect their training and experience. At present, mentoring programs seem to be put in place unevenly across the country and more a company initiative than an indus¬try one. However, there is increasing interest in what the industry calls supervisory competence.

“There is a lot of emphasis on supervisory compe¬tency. We don’t define it as mentoring, but to be a competent supervisor, you have to guide young peo¬ple,” MacGillivray says.

Enform is encouraging companies to create what they call green-hand programs (young workers in the industry are often called green hands) that will ensure an opportunity for supervisors and co-workers to mentor and coach newer workers in their daily tasks. As this is easier to execute when “green” workers are visible, programs often require young and inexperi¬enced employees to wear green hard hats or paste green-hand stickers on their hard hats.

According to a report prepared by Enform, identi¬fying green hands should prevent co-workers from making potentially dangerous assumptions about the workers’ experience or skills. For example, green hands should not be expected to do their tasks as effi¬ciently as an experienced worker, know the site-specif¬ic practices and procedures, be familiar with compa¬ny-specific controls for keeping the workplace safe, or know how to manage hazards.

The most effective mentoring and training pro¬vides more than just knowledge about how to mix drilling mud or operate a crane; it requires an under¬standing of the company and the worksite. “There are a lot of contractors in the oil and gas field. You can get skilled people who have tunnel vision. Systems are complex. You need to know how the [site] works and the procedures work,” Carr argues.

Learn from Mistakes

The complexity of the systems in which oil and gas workers often find themselves is reflected in the requirement for contingency plans that regulators expect industry players to have in place. The new Drilling and Production Guidelines, released by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board in 2011, encompass more than 25 types of issues companies must address in their contin¬gency plans. This includes ice management, well con¬trol, person overboard and preventing emergencies.

Having such plans in place, along with ongoing training programs and mentorship activities, enables companies to lay the foundation for a safety culture. According to CAPP’s 2014 progress report, this is a best practice that needs to be better addressed. “Safety should be a part of company culture, and the health and safety of the workers should always be top of mind,” Reeves says.

Creating that culture means looking outside com¬pany walls. For example, Reeves notes that when a workplace injury occurs, the workers’ compensation board collaborates with the employer and worker to address the situation. It is also an opportunity to learn what went wrong and how to avoid similar injuries in the future.

Enform’s safety alerts work on the same principles. If a company experiences a serious injury or near miss, it is encouraged to anonymously summarize the inci¬dent, so that the learning points can be shared with the entire industry. A safety alert can be issued about equipment, processes or practices.

One recent alert involved an incident that occurred when a crew was conducting well-kill operations on an oil well. A worker was monitoring the return flow to the service rig trough from on top of the rig tank. When the returns became gassier, the return flow was opened to the degasser section of the rig tank, and the trough flow was pinched in slightly. The rig manager proceeded to the top of the rig-tank stairs, where his personal gas monitor immediately began to sound the lower-explosive-limit alarm. The rig manager looked up and saw both the rig tank and the worker on the rig tank being engulfed in flames.

The worker on top of the rig tank jumped over the handrail to the ground and suffered a broken hand from the landing. The flash fire led to minor burns to the worker’s face, chest, back and thighs, and extensive burns to the forearms that required skin grafting sur¬gery and 18 days in the hospital.

As a result of the incident, the company identified corrective and preventive actions that could be taken, which included implementing a new administrative control designed to keep personnel out of a hot zone.

Safety as Usual

Unfortunately, such accidents are commonplace in the oil and gas industry, which has demonstrated improvements in its accident record. Now, concerns about safety are being raised in a market in which plummeting oil prices have become the norm. Last June, the price of crude oil was roughly US$115 per barrel. Eight months later, it had dropped by more than half to US$49 per barrel.

Such drastic declines should not affect safety, says Colleen Ménard, deputy registrar of the Canada- Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board in Halifax. “We expect worker safety to be of paramount impor¬tance to operators, regardless of economic changes.”

The same zero-tolerance attitude applies in Alberta. “The government’s view is that whether business is busy or slow should have no bearing on how any employer prioritizes health and safety train¬ing and enforcement. It quite simply is expected that all employers in Alberta keep the health and safety of their workforce and workplace as their top priority,” Merritt stresses.

Those expectations are likely being met. MacGillivray thinks that concerns over younger, cheaper workers might be preferred over older, more expensive workers in tough times — including dur¬ing major layoffs in the sector, such as when Houston-based Halliburton Company announced up to 6,200 job cuts in February as a result of decreased drilling — are unwarranted.

“When there is dramatic pickup in the industry, there is dramatic pickup in young and inexperienced workers. When times are tough, companies tend to retain skilled workers. They are more efficient,” MacGillivray explains.

That approach mirrors what Paslavskyi gathers from his members. “They tell us that straight-out-of-school newbies are more likely to be laid off due to cutbacks than experienced workers.” That said, in a pressure-cooker environment, young and less-expe¬rienced workers may take unnecessary and unac¬ceptable risks in order to hang on to a job or impress their bosses, he suggests.

Overall, many experts believe the oil and gas sector is not likely to compromise on its employees’ safety, as workplace accidents or fatalities can have an adverse impact on reputation and revenue — outcomes that are simply too serious to overlook — not to mention that regulators are keeping a close eye on activities.

“The consequences are so acute,” Carr says. “An incident can lead to an individual injury, or it can lead to a catastrophic event.”

For Paslavksyi, safety must be the first priority in the oil and gas industry, in which accidents near rigs happen often. He believes that it is acceptable for training and safety programs to cut a little into prof-its, because people want to work for a safe company. “Safety has commercial value, which is one of the factors that guarantee profitability in the long run,” he says.

Donalee Moulton is a writer in Halifax. Follow us on Twitter @PipelineOHS. Pipeline – Canada’s Oil and Gas Safety Magazine.

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