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5 workers injured in Alberta oilsands blast; probe ongoing

By COS staff
| www.cos-mag.com

Canadian Natural Resources (CNR) may have another regulatory fire to put out as it faces work stoppage while investigators probe the cause of an explosion Thursday that injured five workers at the company's Horizon oilsands site near Fort McKay First Nation in Northern Alberta.

Sorcha Thomas, an OHS spokesperson for the Alberta Ministry of Employment and Immigration told COS that health and safety investigation is still underway and that the probe "will take as long as necessary" to ensure the safety of the workers. As of Tuesday, January 11, however, the government has issued a "partial removal" of the stop-work order to allow CNR's own personnel access to certain parts of the mine that have been deemed safe to assess damage, Thomas said.

The incident occurred at 3:30 p.m. MT when an explosion occurred inside a coker, a facility that uses heat to convert bitumen into crude oil, sending the almost 150-metre high structure up in flames. The blaze was eventually contained to the coker area before finally being extinguished around 7:15 p.m, according to a CBC news report.

Two workers were injured directly by the blast, with one suffering second- and third-degree burns and the other first-degree burns. A third worker was treated for shock and two other workers were stricken with back and leg injuries, respectively. One of the workers is still being treated at an Edmonton Hospital, where he remains in stable condition.

Provincial health and safety officers are currently investigating the cause of the blast to determine if any safety infractions were committed. In a press statement, CNR  indicated that it is also continuing its own investigation of the cause of the explosion.

While CNR is hopeful the stop-work order will be lifted sooner rather than later, it is too early too tell when the company will be given the go-ahead to resume production.

This is just the latest in a string of high-profile workplace incidents for Canadian Natural Resources. In 2007, two Chinese foreign workers were killed and four others were injured when a tank they were working on collapsed. In 2008, another worker was killed when the floating backhoe he was operating tipped into a pond, trapping him inside. Both of the previous incidents occurred at the Horizon site.

The explosion elicited stern responses from the NDP and the Alberta Federation of Labour, with both urging for a thorough and transparent investigation of the incident. Meanwhile, CNR's stock plummeted in the wake of the blast, dropping $2.13 per share on Friday alone. One analyst estimated the company could lose up to $885 million over the next six months, according to a CBC financial report, and that's before any fines levied by the province in response to the incident.

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