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How companies are embracing new technologies and techniques to keep their workers safe

“A poor safety record will ultimately mean a poor financial record. It’s that simple"

May 19, 2014

by Alix Kemp


In January, Jerry Cooper, a 40-year-old father of two, was found lying dead in a pool of water and sand on a Suncor work site outside Fort McMurray. Tammy Cooper, his wife, later said in a CBC interview that he was killed in “a tragic accident that could have happened to anyone.” The incident is under investigation by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety, along with Suncor itself. While incidents like this tend to get the most attention, it’s the ones that don’t make the press that cost companies millions of dollars annually. Preventing these accidents isn’t just about reducing injury payouts, however. Studies by American Society of Safety Engineers and the North American Occupational Safety & Health Association found that effective safety programs generate returns of between four to six dollars for every dollar spent thanks to increased productivity, reduced insurance costs and a better corporate reputation. “Safety is big business,” says Kevin Burns, a safety meeting consultant. “A poor safety record will ultimately mean a poor financial record. It’s that simple. Senior management is starting to recognize that safety is not an expense on the job site; it is an investment that turns [into] huge profits.” The pursuit of a safe and profitable work environment, the influx of younger workers in the oil sands and the advent of new technologies in both training software and drilling have all led to significant changes in how companies approach health and safety on the work site. Those changes, in turn, have succeeded in reducing injuries and deaths in Alberta’s oil industry. Here’s how it’s happening.

It’s a Process
Safety, like the industry it serves, is much more complicated than it used to be.

Cameron MacGillivray, the president and CEO of Enform, the safety association serving Canada’s upstream oil and gas industry, says new technologies like fracking and horizontal drilling have had an enormous impact on how businesses approach safety and training in the oil industry. “When you drilled a well 20 or 30 years ago, it was a shallow well, it was a vertical well, it was a low-pressure well. Now when you drill wells, they tend to be deeper, horizontal, higher pressure, more> materials,” he says. “So you have to train [workers] to look after their personal safety, but you also have to have systems in place that control the way operations are done so that they’re always done safely.” As a result, MacGillivray says there is a much greater focus on process safety management, which deals with the prevention of catastrophic accidents such as explosions, structure collapses and fires, rather than personal safety issues like slips and falls. That’s come in large part due to major disasters south of the border. “Some of the recent catastrophes in the United States, for instance with the BP Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and the Texas City refinery in 2005, really sparked some rethinking on the part of the industry.” Enform currently offers a number of process-oriented courses on issues such as how to prevent well blowouts, publishes industry recommended practices around process safety, and plans to expand its offerings in this area going forward.

Play to Learn
Serious Labs, an Edmonton-based software company, specializes in making what company president Ken MacLean calls “serious games” for the construction, mining and oil and gas industries. The company started out making simulations of drilling rigs, but MacLean says that these were fairly limited as a training tool. “It became apparent that there was a real need for a more comprehensive training solution for heavy industry,” he says. So the company built on those simulations, adding rules, challenges and goals that would make them more engaging and more similar to video games. MacLean points to multiple studies that suggest game-based simulations are more effective at increasing information retention than traditional classroom-based education. “Games are the best way to learn because you don’t know you’re learning,” he says. “It’s very engaging. You’re paying attention because games have consequences.”

MacLean also points to shifting demographics and technology in the oil and gas industry. “This next generation of learners are gamers themselves. They’re the digital generation,” he says, which means they’re used to playing and absorbing information through games. “Companies are saying this is a good use of time and a good use of their training dollars.”

Meet and Greet
It’s not just training practices that have changed. Burns says the way organizations approach safety on a day-to-day basis has also shifted. Businesses in the oil and gas sector are legally required to advise workers of potentially hazardous conditions and address injuries, which is typically done through safety meetings. “Traditionally, the safety meeting has been more about incident investigation – somebody cut their hand on a piece of equipment, so they’ll talk about it at the safety meeting today and remind everyone to wear their gloves.” But Burns says that over the past five years, those meetings have shifted to focus on bigger-picture concerns, like worker attitudes towards safety and safety culture. “It involves more of the motivational aspects, the inspirational aspects.” Rather than focusing only on incidents, meetings are now an opportunity to recognize workers who are excelling, and involve more collaboration between safety managers and workers. “We’re starting to see a lot of the safety managers not quoting chapter and verse from the bible of occupational health and safety, but actually having one-on-one conversations with people.”


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One Response to How companies are embracing new technologies and techniques to keep their workers safe

  1. Philip Uglow says:

    Thanks for the article Alix.

    In our business we have also seen and encourage worker involvement in the safety process. Hopefully the days of the tool pusher “lecturing” the subordinates on safety protocols is long gone. Now, the most effective way to improve safety is have the front line folks run and discuss what could “bite them today.