Final Report for Creative Sentencing: Protecting Worker Safety in Alberta by Enhancing Field Level Hazard Assessments and Training for Ground Hazards Associated with Tailings Facilities, Dams, and Systems

  • Author(s) / Creator(s)
  • Efforts related to the safety and performance of oil sands tailings storage and transportation facilities have traditionally focused on preventing catastrophic failures and are well defined by government legislation and industrial best practices. However, a recent death related to ground hazards near oil sands tailings facilities, dykes, and transport systems signals the need for improved worker safety during daily operations near these facilities. Ground hazards are known and understood by geotechnical experts, but a breakdown in communication occurs with respect to informing frontline workers. This final report serves to provide a thorough review of the research completed as part of the creative sentencing project resulting from that fatality. It represents an unprecedented collaboration and initiative between the oil sands industry, regional contractors, the Province of Alberta, and the University of Alberta.

    The outcomes of this research project are increasing the discussion of worker safety in tailings by the:
    (1) creation of seven tailings specific, so called, Bow Tie Diagrams that graphically provide a means to showcase hazards, threats, consequences and controls,

    (2) interviews with 158 frontline workers, leaders and regional contractors to determine the viewpoint of internal stakeholders,
    (3) development of a generalized framework for ground hazards in the oil sands tailings operations,
    (4) creation of ground hazard photo databases for summer, winter and spring that include descriptions of the ground hazards, potential consequences, precursory conditions and temporal factors,
    (5) inaugural Tailings Safety Symposium to promote collaboration between oil sands owner companies and regional contractors, and
    (6) presentation of this research to 12 diverse interdisciplinary audiences across Canada.

    A holistic approach to operations and worker safety that includes managing the dynamic tailings work environment, job tasks, human factor considerations, and the potential for unknown hazards so that workers are better able to control all hazards in their work environments. Of particular concern are ground hazards in oil sands tailings operations as they not always apparent and pose a threat to workers with no training relevant to ground hazards when working near tailings facilities, dykes, and transport systems.

    Over the two-year research project, data were collected from four sources: the Energy Safety Canada tailings hazard inventory; incident databases related to the oil sands tailings operations; interviews with tailings workers, regional contractors, and leadership; and a ground hazard assessment conducted by the University of Alberta. These four datasets were compared to determine similarities and differences and then provide recommendations for enhancement of the current hazard identification tools and controls for ground hazards.

    Process safety management tools such as the Bow Tie Risk Assessment Method were used to cluster the tailings hazard inventory and identify areas for enhanced controls. Energy Safety Canada subject matter experts reviewed the bow tie diagrams to ensure applicability to tailings operations. The final bow tie diagrams showed a heavy reliance on administrative controls (56% of the controls mentioned were administrative) such as training, permits, and hazard assessment to protect worker safety. This value was confirmed by engineers who indicated that engineering controls and elimination and substitution methods are implemented in the design phase, but administrative controls are the primary method to mitigate hazards in the field during daily operations.

    Tailings incident databases from multiple companies were analyzed to determine what incidents are actually happening in the tailings operations and what is being reported. The data were categorized by hazard type, with a focus on incidents caused by or that could cause ground hazards. Incidents in the ground hazard category include slips, trips, and falls; stuck or sunk equipment; pipeline leaks; and reported ground hazards (i.e., berm breaches, washouts, and over-poured cells). It was determined that almost a quarter (23%) of the reported incidents related to ground hazards.
    Interviews were also completed with 158 frontline tailings workers, safety personnel, engineers, supervisors, leadership, and regional contractors. Interviewees were asked about the hazards they see in the tailings operations, what solutions or changes they would like to see implemented, and what “words of wisdom” they would pass down to new workers. Workers are aware of the unique, dynamic environment in which they work; however, incidents still occur. One of the reasons incidents are occurring is a lack of information or training regarding tailings specific hazards.

    Given the lack of training on tailings specific hazards, a framework was developed to discuss ground hazards in the oil sands tailings operations. This framework includes definitions of the four main ground hazards identified by the University of Alberta during their site visits: soft ground, surface erosion, subsurface erosion, and slope instability. To accompany this framework, three ground hazard photo databases have also been created. The photos were taken in three seasons (summer, winter, and spring) of representative tailings facilities, dykes, and transport systems. The hazards in tailings operations are seasonal, indicating the importance for multiple site visits and differentiation between times of the year. How these ground hazards manifest, potential consequences, precursory conditions, and temporal factors are discussed in the figures.

    Another deliverable of this project was the dissemination of information. The results of this research were presented numerous times to the Energy Safety Canada Tailings Safety Task Force at their office in Fort McMurray. This task force has representation from all of the major oil sands operators and regional contractors. Participation from members was invaluable in terms of providing expert information for the project. Information provided at these meetings was shared with the respective organizations represented by these participants. This type of collaboration regarding tailings related safety in the oil sands is unprecedented, and is set up to continue after the conclusion of this project.

    On November 29, 2018, the results of this research were also presented to the most important stakeholders—the tailings workers, contractors, and leadership—at an inaugural Tailings Safety Symposium. The 105 people in attendance represented 15 organizations. The findings from the project were presented to the group and feedback on next steps was solicited through group brainstorming methods.
    In addition to the local oil sands community, this research has also been presented 12 times to diverse audiences at academic and industrial conferences and workshops, including the Canadian Institute of Mining Convention 2018, Petroleum Safety Conference 2018, Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference 2017 and 2018, GeoEdmonton 2018, and 2018 Geohazards 7. The attendees at these presentations provided valuable feedback on the project at every stage of the research process. The full list of academic presentations can be found in Appendix G along with the accepted abstracts. This research will continue to be disseminated after submission of this report as the work has been accepted for presentation at two conferences in 2019: the Society for Risk Analysis and the Center for Risk, Integrity and Safety Engineering Symposium.

    Based on the analysis of the collected data and discussions with subject matter experts at Energy Safety Canada eight recommendations were developed. The recommendations are:
    (1) increased communication within industry,
    (2) increased communication within companies,
    (3) enhancements to hazard identification tools,
    (4) critically evaluate current operations, like the operation of spill boxes,
    (5) increase resources,
    (6) tailings-specific training,
    (7) regional standardization, and
    (8) enhancements to incident databases.

    Energy Safety Canada has already begun the process of implementing these recommendations with the oil sands tailings industry by taking the following actions: setting up continued meetings of the tailings safety task force, creating smaller working groups to address regional training, alignment of standards on all sites, pipeline leak best practices, spill box operation best practices, working on water and ice best practices, and engaging with emergency response teams to ensure competency for successful emergency response plans. They have also proposed a monthly call for companies (owners and contractors) to discuss lessons learned and share incidents. This type of collaboration regarding safety is unprecedented in industry, and the continued partnership will significantly improve personal safety in the tailings. Hopefully, other industries will see this project as a case study to begin their own collaborations.

  • Date created
  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Type of Item
  • DOI
  • License
    Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International