It was early 1987 when Jim Dinning, Alberta’s then–minister of community and occupational health, blew a gasket and started phoning oil company chief executive officers, telling them if the oilpatch didn’t clean up its appalling safety record on its own, the government would do it for them.
In addition to bringing about a devastating oil price collapse, 1986 had been a brutal year for accidents and fatalities.
There was a terrible condensate explosion on a completion operation near Edson, Alta., leaving several workers with severe burns. When the province introduced drilling incentives that expired on December 31, a bunch of rigs with green crews went back to work in a hurry over the Christmas holidays, resulting in multiple fatalities.
In 1986, the lost-time-accident claim rate was 3.9 per 100 man-years worked, 13.3 per cent lower than in 1985. But for drilling and service rigs, it was 16 per 100, down marginally from 16.4 the prior year. This was after 30 per cent reduction in man-years worked because of the oil price slump. You’d think only the best hands would be working. Something was seriously wrong.
The minister quickly got everybody’s attention. A good conservative, Dinning told this writer at the time he’d rather have industry fix itself than have the government intervene. But if nothing changed, the heavy hand of government enforcement was on its way.
The result a year later was a remarkable report from the Upstream Petroleum Industry Task Force on Safety (UPITFOS), tabling 42 recommendations. The task force was negotiated then enacted in 1988 by the Canadian Petroleum Association, Independent Petroleum Association of Canada, Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, Petroleum Services Association of Canada and the Small Explorers and Producers Association of Canada.
Three decades later, the results of UPITFOS are absolutely phenomenal.
What the UPITFOS process agreed upon was, as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers would write 26 years later, the industry “strongly believes that the ultimate responsibility for improved safety performance lies with senior management of individual companies in the industry.”
This included the oil companies, as they had significant influence on the behaviour of their service contractors on location.
What the participants negotiated and agreed upon was the first set of industry-wide standards and procedures under which it would operate to ensure everyone on a location was properly trained and properly equipped.
This is when workers first became unable to get on a location without appropriate safety tickets, orientation and personal protective equipment. Industry-recommended practices were developed for higher risk operations like well testing and pressure pumping. What also emerged was the basic minimum standard safety program called Certificate of Recognition (COR).
Responsible operators wouldn’t hire vendors without a COR, which forced every company, big and small, to ensure safety was a culture, not just a manual. Ongoing independent audits were also required.
Thirty years later, the results have been spectacular. According to Alberta’s occupational health and safety report for 2015, mining and petroleum development was the safest industry in the province. The provincial rate for disabling injuries was 2.36. The oilpatch was 0.88.
The provincial average for lost-time accidents was 1.26. Oil and gas reported 0.25, down 96 per cent from 1986.
“The mining and petroleum development sector continued to have the lowest lost-time claim rate in 2015 at 0.25. Provincial and municipal government, education and health services had the highest lost-time claim rate in 2015 at 1.98,” the report reads.
It was now safer in the oilpatch than in the government.
Industrial sectors with much worse safety performance than oil and gas—which is everybody—includes agriculture and forestry, personal and professional business services, construction, manufacturing processing and packaging, transportation communication and utilities, and wholesale and retail.
What the heck are they doing to each other in the offices, plants, stores and warehouses while oilpatch crews are working in the field?
What is unique about UPITFOS is this is the only major industrial sector that has chosen to develop industry-wide standards—above and beyond provincial rules and regulations—that are almost uniform across all locations and operations. The only exception is companies that demand more, not less.
The result is a safety culture that has evolved to the point that a good safety record is a commercial necessity if you want to work for the most responsible operators, invariably those able to write the biggest cheques.
Despite this compelling data, the oilpatch is still tarred with the brush of not working safely enough. But having set the standard, it would be nice if our critics could start improving their own safety performance.