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Suncor funds tailing safety project as part of creative sentencing

Court ordered $285,000 investment in risk management tools to guard against ground hazards
| Canadian Occupational Safety
Suncor Sherwood Park
Steam from a Suncor refinery rises at rear as pipes are seen traversing industrial zone dubbed "Refinery Row", also run by energy firms Enbridge and Kinder Morgan in Sherwood Park, near Edmonton, on Nov. 13, 2016 REUTERS/Chris Helgren

An innovative creative sentence under the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act is addressing the tragedy of a Suncor Energy worker’s death by enhancing the protection of workers against ground hazards.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 19, 2014, a veteran employee of Suncor died in a workplace accident near Fort McMurray, Alta. Jerry Cooper, a 40-year-old tailings operator who had worked for the company for 13 years, fell through the ground, softened by a leaking tailings pipeline, and was unable to free himself.

In April, through a negotiated agreement on all sides, a Provincial Court judge ordered Suncor to fund a project to help manage ground hazards. The company is investing $285,000 in the  University of Alberta to enhance risk management tools to guard against ground hazards.

“We were heartbroken by Jerry’s death and we want to make sure something like this never happens again to another oilsands employee across the industry,” said Mark Little, Suncor’s president of upstream. “This investment to strengthen industry safety is an important way to honour Jerry’s memory and make sure his passing was not in vain.”

By the end of the project, oilsands facilities operators will have an extra layer of protection against potential geotechnical hazards.

“When you think about a tailings facility, what often comes to mind is the safety measures in place against a catastrophic failure. As far as ongoing operations and worker safety are concerned, there hasn’t been much done,” said Lianne Lefsrud, the research team lead. “We have identified an important gap in the research, which we aim to fill.”

The two-year study focuses on enhancing worker awareness and safety at tailings storage and fluid tailings transportation facilities such as ponds, dykes, dams and pipelines. 

Potential ground hazards around these facilities are difficult to detect for untrained personnel. Few people would even consider the possibility that the ground is unstable, as ground conditions don’t change very often or very fast.

The research team is interviewing tailings operators to identify their current health and safety practices for field operations, investigating potential ground hazards and reviewing risk management regulations. 

Although initiated and funded by Suncor Energy, other oilsands companies have expressed their interest in this project.

Once the research team has reviewed the current safety measures and identified potential geotechnical hazards associated with tailings facilities and daily operations, it will develop “red flags” heralding the onset of a ground hazard, and present safety recommendations to the participating companies that would enhance worker safety.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of COS.

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