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All alone

By Amanda Silliker
| www.cos-mag.com

Monitoring devices are invaluable tools for lone workers

Sheila Inman was starting to get worried. Her husband, Bernie, who worked alone in a natural gas field in northwestern Alberta, had not come home from his regular shift. Sheila, who was six months pregnant, scoured the town looking for him. Finally at around midnight, she called his off-shift co-worker and asked him to check the gas field for Bernie because she had a gut feeling something had happened to him — and she was right.

At 3 a.m., after extensively combing the 80 km of the field, the co-worker found Bernie unconscious in a small gas well separator/metering building. He had somehow tripped and hit his head. Disoriented, he had crawled around the building and his foot hit a bleed valve on a methanol injection pump, causing a continual release of methanol onto the floor and his clothing. Bernie ended up being exposed to the dangerous chemical in excess of 11 hours. 

Bernie was rushed to the hospital where it was revealed he had suffered second- and third-degree burns across 70 per cent of his body. He had extensive internal damage to his

organs, lungs and brain because he was both absorbing the methanol into his skin and inhaling it. He was kept in an induced coma in the hospital for about one month.

Sheila was told he would have a very slim chance of survival and if he did make it, he would have brain damage to the point of being institutionalized, and he would likely be blind as well.

That incident was 20 years ago. Now, although Bernie is a quadriplegic who is confined to a wheelchair, he has made a remarkable recovery and tells his story to others across the country.

“To everyone’s surprise and against the odds, I began to come out of the coma,” he says. “Over time, my kidneys started to come back to life, I had my eyesight and the lesions covering the surface of my brain healed and here I am now, 20 years later.”

Back then, lone workers did not have any monitoring devices to track or protect them in case of an incident. Bernie says if he had of had some sort of monitoring device, his outcome would have been much different.

“The level of my injury was as significant as it was because of the length of time that I was exposed to the toxic chemical. If I was out of there in two hours, I probably could still walk and would not have been as burned as I was,” he says. “A lone worker type of system not only would have alerted that I was down, but it could also pinpoint my exact location.”

There are a variety of workers in the oil and gas industry that work alone at any given time. Operators and maintenance personnel frequently work alone on unmanned sites such as well sites, oil batteries and gas compressor stations.

Workers in exploration, construction and those who drive frequently from site to site may also face working alone risks.

Aside from the potential of a fall or workplace accident, oil and gas workers need to be aware of potential chemical injuries. For example, workers need to be protected against exposure to sour gas, a natural gas containing hydrogen sulphide (H2S) which is poisonous and can render a person unconscious.

Another big risk of working alone is worker health. A lone worker monitoring system is useful if the person has any health concerns, says Brendon Cook, co-founder and chief technology officer at Blackline GPS in Calgary.

“There are people working in the industry that are diabetic or have a heart condition or maybe someone is just getting old and their potential for a stroke is coming up,” he says. “That topic of health incidents is not nearly as front of mind as injuries.” 

Emergency functions

The majority of lone worker monitoring solutions include a panic button the worker can initiate should he be in distress. Many lone worker monitoring systems also include a man down function, which notifies the emergency centre if the worker has been motionless for a period of time.

These systems include GPS functions so the company can pinpoint the exact location of the worker.

The service provider will initiate its emergency plan if it is not able to make contact with the worker, or an emergency alarm goes off that was either generated automatically or by the worker. These plans can vary in complexity based on the provider.

For example, after the first call is not answered, CheckMate will call back in three minutes and if the second call is not answered, then an alarm is generated in the emergency response centre. The operator calls a third time and will then start alerting contacts within the company. CheckMate requires clients to provide at least three contacts, and it would usually be the worker’s supervisor and a variety of other managers so it can make sure someone is notified.

“We’ll go through it once without leaving a voice mail because we want to get someone rather than leave a message and if we reach no one, then we go through it again and start leaving messages at every one. We’ll wait five to 10 minutes and then we’ll go through that list again,” says Rial Black, general manager at ProTELEC Alarms in Winnipeg, which manufactures CheckMate. “We’ll do it a number of times until we track someone down.” 

Types of systems

There are a wide variety of lone worker monitoring systems on the market. 

Cellphones

One form of a lone worker system is an automated call to a cellphone that generates an alert when the call goes unanswered. This is often monitored by an external service provider. CheckMate uses this format, where it makes automated calls to the worker who then puts in a pin number on his cellphone to indicate he received the call.

There are also systems available in the market that are internally monitored by the employer as opposed to a third-party call centre.

Some systems, either internally or externally monitored, require the worker to call in, putting the onus on the worker.

One difficulty with systems that rely on cellphones is they require good cell coverage, which may pose a challenge for some oil and gas workers who are out of cell range, says Ron Lambert, principal of Freestone Consulting Group, a lone worker consulting firm in Calgary.

“The check-in thing is a little more applicable to workers in urban roles. We find for realtors it’s ideal, maybe retail clerks where they can quickly pick up a phone, security folks,” he says.

Also, workers cannot carry cellphones into some buildings because they are not rated intrinsically for explosive environments, says Lambert. The majority of the upstream oil and gas industry is a classified environment, which means if you have anything that can generate a spark such as a cellphone or electronic device, it won’t be permitted on those sites, he says.

Standalone devices

Another type of lone worker monitoring system provides the workers with a special device they can carry with them. These can be monitored internally or externally through a service provider.

Employers should make sure there is a person or a system monitoring these devices, otherwise they will not meet the legislative requirements for checking in on employees. Simply having a panic button available to workers is not enough.

Blackline GPS offers a system that connects to a wireless network and can continuously monitor an employee’s status and location.

“With activity monitoring there’s accelerometers inside that monitor the movement of employees, looking for a potential man-down situation where they’re motionless, so if they are moving around that can be considered essentially an implied check-in. It’s like they are continuously being checked in because they are active,” says Cook.

Employers also need to make sure there is sufficient wireless satellite coverage.

“These devices (can) have big flaws,” says Lambert. “For satellite-based communication devices, a lot of oil and gas personnel will go into a shack of some sort, a production building or a separator building, and the metal roofs on these will preclude all satellite communication, so they’re left unprotected.” 

Vehicle-based system

Another option for oil and gas companies are vehicle-based systems. An automated vehicle locating (AVL) system is installed in the truck and the worker is given an intrinsically safe wireless device to wear that communicates with the truck. This is well suited to oil and gas workers as the vehicle’s location is always known and the worker can safely enter classified environments, says Lambert. And the status of the worker is constantly monitored.

“These systems are a little bit pricier but they can be very powerful in terms of providing excellent protection to workers, and it really provides a great means to have other safety benefits as well with regards to things like driving behaviour, since the

vehicles are tracked, and other basic fleet management features,” he says.

One consideration for devices like this is the range of wireless communication. The worker should be able to go an appropriate distance from the truck and still have coverage.  

Radio transmitters

Some of the larger companies that have sites covering hundreds of square acres implement their own two-way radio communications systems, which are then used to support a work alone check-in process. Some systems can provide man-down work incapacitation detection features thereby automating the worker monitoring process.

“It’s fantastic where you have a bunch of wells developed in an area and they all pump fluids to a central plant,” says Lambert. “It’s an ideal environment for a radio system especially if it also has work alone protection functions.” 

Selecting the right one

The first step in determining the right lone worker protection for your company is taking a look at the legislation.

Ten out of the 13 jurisdictions have specific lone worker legislation; the exceptions are Ontario, Yukon and Nova Scotia. The legislation mandates companies have to look at all worker roles to determine if they are truly working alone.

The Alberta legislation is the most stringent. It says the working alone requirements apply when both the following conditions are met:

• a worker is working by himself

• assistance in the event of an injury, illness or emergency is not readily available to the worker.

Three factors must be assessed when determining if assistance is “readily available”:

• Awareness: Will other persons capable of providing assistance be aware of the worker’s needs?

• Willingness: Is it reasonable to expect those other persons will provide helpful assistance?

• Timeliness: Will assistance be provided within a reasonable period of time?

If not all of these conditions are met, then the worker is considered to be working alone.

If a company has workers that qualify as working alone, it must conduct a hazard and risk assessment for all roles — multiple roles can be lumped together if they have similar working conditions. The employer must review records and past incidents, collect input from workers and review day-to-day management practices. The assessment must be in writing and communicated to all affected workers.

The next step is to identify how to mitigate the various risks.

“There may be opportunities to make changes to the work environment, some procedural changes to help them do their jobs a bit more safely,” says Lambert.

Then the appropriate technology must be chosen. The legislation requires employers to provide an “effective communication system” that consists of two components. The first involves a radio, telephone or other effective means of electronic communication, and the second involves regular contact with the worker by the employer at “intervals appropriate to the nature of the hazard associated with the worker’s work.”

The legislation does not stipulate how often check-ins should occur. A person at a retail store located in a strip mall where other employees are nearby may not require as frequent check-ins as a worker working with hazardous chemicals or equipment.

Right now, many companies have a two- to three-hour check-in, which may be a bit concerning because a lot can happen in three hours, says Lambert.

“If they were to have an incident and OH&S would follow up, that type of interval may not be found to be acceptable,” he says. “They really have to be aware of that.”

When choosing technology, employers should consider what kind of environment their workers are in (explosive or not) and how often they need to be in touch with the workers, given the risks. 

Worker responsibility

Workers play an important part in the entire working alone solution.

From the very beginning, they need to understand what working alone really means. For example, if two workers were working on a remote site, then one of them leaves for the day, the dynamic has changed and now that worker is working alone and he needs to follow all applicable procedures.

They need to know their responsibilities in regard to the working alone policy, what they can and cannot do when working alone, what safety procedures they need to follow and what check-in systems they need to comply with, says Black.

Employers should make sure they document the training — and refresher training — they give their workers around lone worker policies.

When introducing a lone worker monitoring system, it can sometimes be difficult to get employee support. The best way to do it is to have all leaders be on the same page, says Cook.

“Working with the safety team and champions there and also the senior teams of divisions, having a harmonized message to employees is really, really critical,” he says. “There’s the concept of Big Brother: ‘I don’t want to be tracked’ — all that is there.”

Many vendors will help offer training around the product to make the process very hands-on for the employees and engage them right away.

According to Bernie, employers in this day and age should be taking advantage of all the modern technology available to keep their lone workers safe.

“I certainly encourage workers and management alike to manage the risks associated with what they’re doing, both on and off the job,” he says. “The workforce out there, the employees, they’re assets, and a lone worker type of system protects them — and they need to be protected.”

This article originally appeared in the Autum 2014 issue of Canadian Oil & Gas Safety.

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