​U of A begins oilsands tailings ground hazard safety research funded through Suncor fatality sentence

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

A team at the University of Alberta has begun work on research to improve worker safety around ground hazards at oilsands tailings ponds.

The two-year, $285,000 project is the result of a creative sentence given to Suncor Energy earlier this year as the result of an employee fatality in January 2014.

Jerry Cooper was monitoring a tailings pipeline when he fell through ground that had been softened by a leak in that pipeline and drowned in a pool of water.

The U of A says that potential ground hazards like these are difficult to detect for untrained personnel and pose an increased risk to anyone without a geotechnical background working in the area.

“Few people would even consider the possibility that the ground is unstable as ground conditions don’t change very often or very fast,” the university says.

The creative sentence was requested by Suncor, notes Lianne Lefsrud, assistant professor in engineering safety and risk management at the U of A.

Lefsrud, one three principal investigators working on the research project, says there is a significant gap in the knowledge around ground hazards near oilsands tailings ponds.

“There’s been basically next to no research with regards to tailings, ground hazards and worker safety. This really is one of a kind,” she says.

Lefsrud joins U of A geotechnical engineering leaders Michael Hendry and Renato Macciotta, who will draw from expertise in the university’s network, with the assistance of graduate students.

Macciotta says the goal is not to give oilsands employees and contractors more work to do, but to enhance existing safety processes.

“These tailings storage and transportation facilities go through a very strict process of risk assessment for their design and also for their operations, and the people who work around them are also very well trained in the safety related to what their work entails,” he says.

“What we’re trying to do with this research is marry that knowledge of potential ground hazards and those tools already in place for worker safety. We don’t expect that workers are going to be experts in ground hazard engineering, but we would like for them to have these tools already in place so that they can assess the potential for [hazards] to occur.”

He adds that although the research project will focus on oilsands facilities, one of the objectives is to develop a process framework for developing field level hazard assessment tools, which in turn could be applied to any industry.

While the results of the project aren’t expected to immediately become part of health and safety regulations, Lefsrud is confident that companies will implement their findings.

“Regulation tends to be a laggard instead of a leader; we often find that companies’ own practices are the best practices that become established and through industry associations like the Oil Sands Safety Association and the Alberta Mine Safety Association, they will often be part of defining what those leading practices are,” she says.

“We expect that because companies want to keep their employees healthy and safe and productive, they are highly motivated to be incorporating any enhancements that help in that regard. They don’t need to be forced into something through regulation.”