Despite the cyclical nature of the oil sands industry, there is one constant – the safety of workers, contractors, and the public.
Over the years, companies in the Athabasca oil sands region have made significant efforts to improve safety records by incorporating protective policies into their day-to-day operations. In fact, industry has set itself an ambitious safety performance goal of zero injuries and zero fatalities, and initiatives related to staff travel and project accommodation are helping to curb risk.
And the efforts of industry are paying off. According to Energy Safety Canada, from 2001 to 2017, the occupational fatality rate (for the upstream oil and gas industry in Western Canada) has dropped by 90 per cent. But there is always room for improvement.
Safety concerns along Highways 63 and 881 – the primary roadways which connect the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), and the oil sands industry, with the rest of Alberta – have long been raised. These roadways have been featured in the media many times, and it’s not usually a good news story.
As the oil sands industry has continued to evolve, traffic volumes on connecting roads increased significantly. For instance, on Highway 63 volumes increased by nearly 40 per cent between 2001 and 2005. By the mid-2000s, strains on the municipality’s infrastructure and traffic congestion were flagged as key concerns by the RMWB.
Recognizing the risk to staff and the public, industry turned its attention to policies and systems that help keep everyone safe. Proactive companies have made concerted efforts to reduce the number of employee and contractor vehicles on the roadways by offering creative transportation and accommodation alternatives.
Be it free bus shuttles, flights directly to and from sites, coordination of shift schedules, restricted on-site vehicle access or housing workers in on-site camp facilities, industry actions have help reduce the amount of site-related daily traffic and related safety incidents associated with daily rush hour commuting.
The provincial and federal governments have also responded to public concerns regarding road safety, investing in major highway upgrades in the region – particularly the twinning of Highway 63, first north of Fort McMurray followed more recently with the southern segment.
Combined, these actions have dramatically improved highway safety in the region. For example, between 2005 and 2014, the collision rate on Highway 63 across the RMWB decreased by 42 per cent. And rates continue to decline due to infrastructure improvements, industry policies, and overall lower traffic volumes.
Unfortunately, the proposed camp moratorium in the RMWB would jeopardize much of the gains in traffic safety made in recent years. By putting hundreds of more vehicles on the road, peak traffic volumes combined with weather and road conditions will potentially increase incidents, creating unsafe conditions for all daily commuters and travelers in the region and would increase commute times to and from sites. This was a key reason why the RMWB, a decade ago, pushed for industry to keep its workforces closer to the remote sites and away from public roads in the RMWB.
Given the remoteness of oil sands sites, one of the main purposes of on-site camp accommodation and rotational work schedules has always been to reduce infrastructure pressure and decrease the number of fatigued drivers on the road. Fewer commuting kilometers per driver means less opportunities for collisions, injury, and death.
Companies have realized that many workers find the demands of a 12-hour shift combined with the daily commute unmanageable. The clear preference is to be in camp while on shift and the evidence suggests that this is the right move. In fact, many oil sands companies now consider the safe daily driving limit for workers on 12-hour shift schedules to be a 60-minute commute per one-way trip.
A majority of oil sands operations are remote and more than 50 km away from the urban service area of Fort McMurray. As such, the removal of camp options will burden workers with an additional 3-6 hour daily commute on top of their 12-hour shifts. This is unsustainable.
A number of studies have shown that being awake for 17-18 hours has the same effect as consuming and having a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent. Even more concerning is that most research draws a link between fatigue and work-related injuries, and that worker fatigue is especially dangerous in high-risk, safety-critical environments.
The ripple effect of the camp moratorium is that tired workers will be at risk while they are on the job as well as during their commute. Hence, it is safer and often preferred by workers to stay in camp. Our highways will also be more congested due to increased traffic volumes and those who are behind the wheel will be exhausted. This raises serious concerns about the safety implications of the moratorium.
We all have a stake in the safety of our highways and job sites. With this in mind, we are asking the municipality to reconsider. While a moratorium may seem like a quick fix to increase resident population in Fort McMurray, it will have unintended consequences that will damage our region’s safety record, and raise the risk to people across our communities.
By Debbie Hammond (Coalition for Safer Alberta Roads), Terry Parker (Building Trades of Alberta) and Karim Zariffa (Oil Sands Community Alliance)