Lone survivors

Wesley O’Hara knows how dangerous it would be if the high-pressure hose he uses to pump river water suddenly blew out. And he knows if it happens, he’ll have to handle it alone.

A worker with a fluid services company out of Edson, Alta., O’Hara is employed to transport water to hydraulic fracturing sites.

“We’re usually alone for only about an hour at a time,” he says. But disaster could strike in a flash. “I’ve heard stories where a water line blows off the truck or the tank and just starts swinging. We’re pumping anywhere up to 10,000 litres a minute. If that line comes off, it’s going to start flailing.”

If O’Hara is vigilant, he’ll recognize the signs and cut the power to the pump before a blowout happens.

“It’s really just a matter of monitoring your line and keeping your eyes open.”

He knows what to do to avoid catastrophe. But O’Hara certainly didn’t enter his career with that knowledge. Colleagues, supervisors and safety managers played important roles in helping him come to grips with the risks of working alone in Canada’s oil and gas industry. Lone workers in this high-risk industry need to use particular equipment and develop special skills to stay safe.

Equipment, elements, animals

Like O’Hara, many lone workers handle potentially dangerous machines, including drills, transport trucks and high-pressure lines, which they must learn to use safely. But proper equipment handling isn’t the only challenge — think sharp teeth and claws.

“You have to watch for wildlife,” O’Hara says. “That’s always a factor working in the woods.” A surprised bear or wolverine could attack. “You have to make a lot of noise and make sure your presence is known.”

There’s also the possibility that during the winter, O’Hara will fall through the ice on a river.

“I try to veer as far as possible away from breaks in the ice. You have to be smart. Check it out in daylight to make sure the ice is thick enough to stand on.”

Another significant concern for lone workers is travel, says Brad Bechtold, the Calgary-based director of oil and gas transformation for communications equipment manufacturer Cisco Canada.

“Because of the remoteness of oil and gas operations, people travel an inordinate amount of time in hazardous conditions, including in winter on poor roads at night.”

Lone workers need to be prepared before they head out on the job. TransCanada, an energy company based in Calgary, requires its service providers to have risk-assessment programs that enable the employees to size up potential hazards.

What’s more, TransCanada expects its contractors’ workers to be physically fit.

“They have to be able to carry a backpack for several miles. Our pipeline right-of-way goes through two coastal mountain ranges and very dense brush. It isn’t easy walking,” says Dale O’Dwyer, the safety manager for TransCanada’s Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project, a 900-kilometre pipeline to export liquefied natural gas from northern B.C.

In addition, TransCanada’s service providers must supply employees with first-aid kits that they can carry with them as they trek through the bush and they must have had emergency medical training.

O’Hara is trained in Workplace Standard First Aid Level C CPR/AED, which involves knowing how to use an automated external defibrillator (AED), and what to do in cases of head and spine injuries and sudden medical emergencies. He has learned the proper way to hold his arm if it’s broken and how to apply a splint.

Before he heads out to a water load station, his company gives him the precise GPS co-ordinates of the location. That way, if he does need to call 911, he can relay his position to the emergency response call centre representative.

Communication devices mandatory

New technologies help address lone worker risks. As per legislative requirements in the provinces where oil and gas activities are prevalent, employers must equip their lone workers with communications devices, such as satellite phones or text messaging devices for regular check-ins and to call for help.

“Best practices in the oil and gas industry utilize full-time partner or group coverage solutions providing real-time monitoring with two-way, scheduled check-in protocols,” says Jeff Moe, account manager at MicroWatt LifeSafety Solutions, a communications technology provider in Calgary.

There is also specific technology available for travel risks, notes Greg Mazniuk, Cisco Canada’s Calgary-based regional director for southern Alberta. For instance, some companies now use video systems to monitor remote locations without visiting them in person, he says.

Bechtold also points to emerging machine-to-machine (M2M) communication systems as a way for companies to reduce lone worker risks.

“Rather than have someone go out and take a reading, we have that information fed back to us. And in some cases, it can trigger an action.”

An M2M solution could set off an alarm to alert someone at a centralized monitoring centre to adjust a valve or stop a pump.

Isolation is the real problem

On-the-job hazards are particularly acute for people who work solo, but that doesn’t mean “lone worker” safety procedures are useful only for employees who spend time completely alone on the job, says O’Dwyer. He points out that TransCanada only hires service providers that send workers out in pairs or larger teams — so they’re not utterly alone, yet they’re still working in the wild with just a few colleagues and no immediate access to outside help if something goes wrong.

But the buddy system isn’t foolproof, according to Moe.

“We’ve come across companies that rely on the buddy system, so there’s always two workers at every site. Yet we’ve had scenarios where one worker goes into a building, the other worker goes to the truck to grab some tools, slips on ice, breaks his hip — and his buddy is inside working for a good 45 minutes before he even realizes he’s on the ground outside, unable to move.”

Practice for emergencies

It’s one thing for companies to develop lone-worker safety procedures, and another for the workers to know the safety steps, says Robin Weatherill, vice-president and general manager at Safety Canada, a Calgary consulting company. He points out that emergencies may occur infrequently, but when they do, workers should be prepared.

“The emergency response plans must be practised on a regular basis,” he says.

These plans could cover a range of issues, including hazardous substance spills and inhospitable environmental conditions such as floods, blizzards and severe lightning storms. Workers should know where to turn if they need to contact outside agencies for assistance.

Employers should also take the time to assess employees’ skills and refrain from pushing workers into jobs that don’t suit their capabilities. When O’Hara first started working in the oil patch doing water transfer for a different company, he didn’t really know how to control the equipment. Yet there he was, working alone on the night shift. Would he tell his employer that he lacked confidence? No way. Why jeopardize his employment?

That said, O’Hara now understands that employees can speak up.

“You have the right to refuse to do unsafe work,” he says. “That’s the first thing we hear in every safety meeting. So if you feel unsafe, just don’t do it.”
Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer based in Ottawa. He can be reached at [email protected].