Oil-Sands Safety Roundtable: Injury prevention keeps companies productive
The workers, contractors and maintenance professionals in the Canadian resource sector face unique challenges when it comes to workplace safety and injury prevention. In the oil sands, the issues of safety are magnified, with manufacturers operating heavy equipment and trucks, managing incredibly large physical assets and dealing with higher-than-average worker turnover.
REM (sister publication to PEM)hosted this roundtable event to present you, our readers, with guidance and positive examples of safety leadership and ideas — to help companies of all stripes reach a top-line level of safety performance. Participants assembled in Fort McMurray, Alta., and discussed everything from the importance of developing and maintaining a vibrant safety culture to how a commitment to safety is just good business.
Alberta looks at the end result
Every province in Canada has its own health and safety legislation, so the discussed started off with a look at what, if any, differences existed between them. Brian Malloch, president of the Plant Engineering and Maintenance Association of Canada (PEMAC), says there is very little difference. “If you’re familiar with one, you’re likely familiar and reasonably compliant with another.”
It comes down to nuances. Sheila Bailey, owner of Fort McMurray-based Bailey Technical Services, a health, safety and environmental consultancy, explains that Ontario legislation is more prescriptive while Alberta focuses on expected results. “Ontario prescribes when you need a joint health and safety (JHS) committee and what their duties are whereas the Alberta legislation is looking at the end result,” she says. “You have to take all precautions, showing your due diligence — and if one of the ways to do that is to have an active JHS committee and do workplace inspections, then that’s what we do because it is the best practices.”
Developing a safety culture
The driving force behind developing an improvement in injury prevention is visible leadership, a commitment to change and employee involvement with a proper accountability structure.
However, maintenance and operations departments have a high level of responsibility in keeping their workers safe. “The managers of both these groups probably have the highest number of people that are exposed to a hazard,” says David Robinson, vice-president of business integration improvement with FT Services Ltd. “There’s a lot of control and planning required to make that happen well and happen dependably well.” He mentioned that, historically, people used to die during confined space work and now it’s a rarity thanks in part to mitigating the risk through training and independent assessments.
“Creating that culture and passion around doing things really well and preparing things really well before you start is a real challenge for maintenance managers and for operations managers, and I’d say it’s especially difficult here [in Fort McMurray],” he continues. “There are a lot of good people here that are very passionate about the place, but every week there are thousands of people flying in and out of this region that don’t call it home.”
Managing a transient workforce
Robinson continues: “Their backgrounds are so different that maintenance managers and for operations managers are continually battling this culture wave to lift their team up, and that’s diluted by new people coming in. It’s a real challenge in this region, more than I’ve seen elsewhere.”
Tim Gondek, executive director of the Oil Sands Safety Association (OSSA), says leadership and vision is critical in their region to manage such a transient workforce. “The industry has great standards, great processes, great policies; we have safety systems, we have risk assessment; we have all the items of an excellent management system,” he says, “but it can only be effective if people are living up to it. You rely on leadership and supervision to constantly project the importance of following the rules or making sure people have the right skills and training to do the job.”
Because of the transient workforce, Tom McWilliams — the oil-sands environment, health and safety program manager with Suncor Energy Services — says the formula is simple: new workers on a site or those in a new role, are more likely to get injured. The longer they’re there, the less likely they are to get injured. “It’s pretty straightforward. We reinforce our hazard awareness and competency programs to ensure that new and experienced workers alike receive the highest standard of resources and training to do their job safely.”
So how does one get the passion to filter from those at the top down to the everyday worker? “As much as I like to think that my company reflects my passion for safety, if you ask a boilermaker in the field, his passion for safety is a reflection of his superintendent/supervisor,” Robinson says. “My influence on him is very indirect, very arm’s length. So we need to focus on that superintendent/supervisor level so they are capable coaches.”
Relaying a story from personal experience, he says his company has assigned new employees someone from the same region to be a liaison, providing them with a mentor to address culture and language issues. “In some cultures, they won’t admit they don’t know, it’s such a loss of face, and it makes them fearful of losing their jobs,” he says. “I think it’s important to have someone in authority who makes a connection with them somehow.”
Visual cues and emotional response
Bailey interjects with a query about how to deal with English not necessarily being the first language of many of the workers.
Gondek responds: “Talking about English as a second language, it’s not really the language that’s the challenge, it’s about making sure people understand what the expectation is,” he says. “Regardless of what language you speak and what position you are, if you see everyone wearing safety glasses and wearing the proper boots and wearing the proper gloves, you don’t need a rule. People know that, ‘When I’m in Fort McMurray, it’s clear that safety is important to everyone, because that’s what people do.’ ”
As far as company initiatives to help new employees navigate the workplace, Suncor has implemented a “green-hat program,” which identifies new employees with a green hat. McWilliams explains: “The green hat program is basically, ‘I’m a new employee, so watch out for me a little bit more than you would for a longstanding employee until I have built that experience and knowledge about hazards in our workplace.’ ”
“And there’s a psychological impact that comes with it,” Robinson adds. A new employee would have to tell themselves: “ ‘I’m putting on my green hat and … it reminds me that I am new in this place and that maybe I don’t understand all the hazards.’ Getting compliance for things like green hats, safety boots — as much as they are a signal for others, I think there is a very real behavioral response in the individual themselves by causing them to go through that change.”
PEMAC’s Malloch agrees strongly with this initiative, and adds that no matter what stage an employee is in their career, “it all boils down to behaviour. And if you can instill a different type of behaviour by simply putting different triggers in place, then you’ve probably got most of the major problems beat.”
To elicit a response from the roundtable members, Malloch says, “In all my years of managing lots of different types of industries, I don’t believe I have ever met a person who went to work to get hurt. I don’t think I ever did, and I think what that means is that we’ve generally managed by statistics.”
Gondek takes it a step further, analyzing the mindset of a worker by bringing up the example for a driver going for a drive. He bet that if a driver was told, as they left the house, that they were going to die before reaching their destination, “I’m pretty sure that that their awareness of hazards and risks during that task of driving over the next half hour would be heightened.” And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge: “How do we get people into that heightened awareness without having them actually go through that negative experience?”
But accidents do happen, and it often boils down to a worker who made the decision to do the job a certain way. “Our workplaces are hazardous,” Bailey explains. “It was hazardous driving here. We try to bring the risk of something bad happening down to zero through lots of good programs and procedures — but ultimately, it’s people making decisions.”
Controlling risk takers
With regard to risk takers in the workplace, Robinson says FT Services runs a course called SET (“it’s like a cut-down psychology course for supervisors”) about how to assess behaviour and create change in people. For example, he says, if your coworker was yesterday on his snowmobile going 120 kilometres per hour through a forest, he or she is a risk taker. “And you expect him now to walk on site, put on his green hat and suddenly be a different person?” he asks. “It’s not going to happen. The behaviours of individuals are largely a function of their environment or their situation, so what we can do as leaders is to help with that.”
But what happens if that individual is suddenly put under a time pressure? When he or she knows how much certain periods of downtime cost a company and needs to decide if speed overrides safety. “Most people under pressure, under stress, will revert to their natural type, or that will be their dominant behaviour that will push trough. So any other learned behaviour about risk assessment, control and all that other stuff really becomes secondary, and their perception of hazards fades away. People need to be able to pull them back.” He says companies need to create that environment for people and recognize that the wrong situation may cause our people to behave in a way is not what we want.
“That’s leadership,” OSSA’s Gondek says, adding that “the passionate people, those ones who want to do good for the company, actually sometimes do the wrong thing trying to do the right thing, and give the perception to their workers, ‘We gotta get this done, gotta get this done!’ But it should be, ‘We gotta get this done safely.’ When you’re guiding people through their everyday work, remember to add safety values behind them to anchor the importance of the work being done safely.”
Suncor’s McWilliams then brings up a point that can be difficult for organizations to reconcile. “The start of the oil-sands industry is not unlike the start of other innovative industries, such as space exploration; there were some pretty substantial risks involved in these ventures. You need a company filled with people who think outside the box — improvement-minded people. They should take risks but, in certain environments, they should not deviate from the set path at all. Some employees have a very difficult time doing that. With input from our shareholders and stakeholders, we need to state what our organizational risk tolerance is and help those naturally inclined to take risks understand principles of risk management.”
Robinson agrees. He says supervisors have to respond immediately to negative behaviour, because “if you don’t create an immediate negative consequence to that behaviour,” people will naturally continue to do it because they get immediate, positive results with unknown or distant negative consequences.
Slips, trips and falls
McWilliams says great progress has been made industry-wide to reduce the occurrence of certain injuries, such as confined-space and fall-from-elevation injuries, thanks to robust training initiatives and inspection blitzes. However, such improvements shine the light on opportunities to reduce other types of injuries. “The injuries we are seeing most right now are slips, trips and falls and contact burns, so we are working to address them. These issues generally haven’t received the same emphasis in hazard awareness and training programs as confined space and fall protection have.” The good news, he says, is that “we can build on our learnings from these successful initiatives and apply this knowledge to our current challenges. Experience shows us that when we invest the resources in controlling specific hazards, we achieve our desired results.”
“But we manage it very tightly,” Robinson adds.
“How seriously do we take slips trips and falls?” McWilliams then asks. “Our society accepts slips, trips and falls as part of winter and part of life. Suncor does not. By understanding and mitigating the hazards in our workplace and drawing a worker’s attention to their own behaviours, we can actually prevent these from occurring. It takes effort, but it is all achievable.”
It’s all a matter prioritization, with training and consistent enforcement. “Think about seatbelts as an example,” Bailey says. “When that rule first came out, it was the oddest thing. But now it wouldn’t occur to you to get into a vehicle without seatbelts.”
“There is a lot of work we should be able to do on the front end to collaborate with our peers in education,” McWilliams says.
Regarding education, with the OSSA, Gondek says he has had discussion in high schools and trade schools about teaching safety as early as possible. “Given the high probability of a welder going to work in a confined space, give the confined space training as part of their trade instead of having to wait for them to graduate and then take it. Get all those skills up front.”
Safety is good business
Throughout the discussion, several of the speakers brought up the fact that safety isn’t just implemented to keep the government at bay. According to Bailey, “a company with a good safety culture is more productive,” and McWilliams concurs: “better business is better safety.”
McWilliams’s experience at Suncor has proven to him that safety initiatives rarely require return-on-investment (ROI) numbers to get the thumbs up from the executive. “Our leaders value the safety of our people above all else. They don’t often discuss ROI because, for the most part, many of our personal safety initiatives really aren’t that expensive, and they have such a profound and positive impact on our people and operations.” He says the bigger challenge is time. “Organizations have to develop a risk-based, prioritized list of the safety improvements they want to undertake so they can implement them proactively and effectively.”
“Having this list of initiative to prioritize is far more effective,” Bailey agrees, adding that merely reacting when something bad happens doesn’t equal long-term success.
“Reacting is rarely successful!” McWilliams says.
“In my career, I’ve seen it happen,” Bailey continues. “I’ve been on the side implementing it and I’ve been on the side receiving reactive-type measures — and they’re not successful.”
Another advantage to companies, such as support provider FT Services, that put a high priority on safety is that it will attract top-notch talent happy to work for a company that values an emploee’s well being. “When we (FT Services) first turned up in Alberta, no one knew us, and it was difficult at first to attract good people,” Robinson says. “Now people come back to us. So instead of having a problem attracting new tradesmen, we get to choose. Does a focus on safety really translate into a competitive advantage and return on investment? Absolutely.”
Gondek couldn’t agree more. “We’re recognizing that poor maintenance, poor reliability and poor safety actually costs the bottom line at the end of the day,” he says. “Because if you don’t have all those systems in place, you’re either in an unplanned maintenance shutdown or your site’s shut down because of an incident investigation.
“There are a lot of benefits to doing the right things. And one of the things I’ve seen going on in the last 10 years is that leadership recognizes the importance of having a safety culture. If it’s the right thing to do, you’ll never have a problem getting the money. The only time you have a challenge is when you have a long list of things you want to do, but have a level of organizational saturation of ‘new initiatives’ that prevents you from effectively implementing the change.”
André Voshart is the editor of REM.