Wildlife, isolation among unique risks for remote workers

Black bear killed Suncor worker in 2014

Lorna Weafer was an instrument technician at Suncor Energy in Fort McMurray, Alta. The 36-year-old Ireland-native was described by family as a warm, conscientious person who made fast friends. On May 7, when Weafer was working at the company’s oilsands base plant, she was attacked and killed by a black bear.

Her six co-workers tried to scare the bear away using fire extinguishers, a water cannon and an air horn.

“A number of her colleagues tried to help her, but tragically, despite their efforts they were not able to save her,” says Suncor spokesperson Sneh Seetal.

While Suncor employees working in the bush carry bear spray, it is not believed spray was used during the incident, which took place on an ?industrial site.

Bear safety awareness materials, advisories and information sessions are available for Suncor employees with increased emphasis during times of high bear activity, Seetal says.

Following Weafer’s death, the company immediately implemented critical incident counselling services for employees on-site and began working directly with officers from the Fish & Wildlife department of Alberta Environment Sustainable Resource Development to increase surveillance and provide further bear safety measures. Occupational Health and Safety — along with Fish & Wildlife — continues to investigate the incident at press time.

Fatal bear attacks rare

Fatal black bear attacks are rare — there were 59 reported incidents between 1900 and 2009 — but no matter how unlikely an incident may be, employers are required to mitigate the risks that come with remote workplaces.

“It may be a remote possibility, but it’s a possibility,” says Sari Sairanen, director of health, safety and environment at Unifor in Toronto, Canada’s largest private sector union.

The most effective thing employers can do, according to Sairanen, is engage employees in the assessment of workplace risk and in the implementation of safety procedures.

“Many employers have had to deal with wildlife in their backyard and so we’ve learned lessons. There are best practices out there,” she says. “It’s up to the employer to find out what those best practices are and to adapt them to their particular needs and ?location.
You have to engage the worker in all of these decisions. They’re the ones who will rely on these policies, so you have to engage them in the process.”
When it comes to wildlife, it is ?often the most common-sense ?measures that do the most to ?protect workers.

“Having wildlife awareness and safety training would be important for all operators in remote areas,” says Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with the Alberta ?Wilderness Association. “In the overwhelming number of incidents involving aggressive black bears... there was some kind of food or edible garbage attractant that they approached. Bears are really food-centered, so being strict about anything that looks like food — including edible garbage — is really important.”

Wildlife just one risk among many

Aside from bear attacks, remote workers face a variety of other risks.

“People in remote areas could be injured or get lost,” Campbell says. “Hazardous materials around the workplace would probably be far more of a concern to workers than wildlife.”

Kari Jefford — president of Unifor Local 229 — sees a “gamut of issues” with her remote workforce.

“A huge issue is the lack of proper support. Workers can’t access any kind of supports within their communities, and really there is no support in those communities,” she says. “It’s a huge barrier for my members and for their communities as a whole. Something as simple as a broken bone or a sprained back snowballs into this huge, negative mess.”

Remote workers face the additional complications of being physically removed from the medical care readily available in more populated areas.

Isolation adds another layer of stress, Jefford says.

“We have seen a huge increase in mental health issues. The isolation... is a real big barrier for our folks to be made whole again,” she says. “Our workers are working harder, with less support, in more dangerous situations. It’s becoming overwhelming for everyone but more so for our members that are in smaller communities and are farther away and don’t have that support. It’s really getting scary.”

While it is positive that many employers are re-evaluating their safety programs in light of recent events, Sairanen says, it is important that emergency preparedness plans are considered through the lens of hazard and risk assessments and not re-jigged based on knee-jerk reactions.

Jefford agrees a renewed focus on prevention — rather than a “pick-up-the-pieces-and-move-on” model — is moving things in the right direction.

Often in remote workplaces, ?employees become accustomed to ?precarious situations and eventually accept hazards as part of their everyday routine. But by focusing on common-sense, everyday preventative measures in addition to addressing hot-button issues, employers can protect workers against even the most unpredictable elements.

“Remote areas have some really precarious situations they have to deal with,” says Sairanen. “It’s all about prevention.”

Liz Foster writes for Canadian Safety Reporter, a sister publication of Canadian Oil & Gas Safety.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of Canadian Oil & Gas Safety, a COS publication.