New research project looks to make 'invisible' hazards more visible

Suncor partners with UAlberta to develop additional site safety measures.


In the early morning hours of Jan. 19, 2014, a veteran employee of Suncor Energy died in a workplace accident. Jerry Cooper, a 40-year-old tailings operator who had worked for the company for 13 years, fell through the ground that was softened by a leaking tailings pipeline, and was unable to free himself. He was one of 919 Canadians whose lives were lost in the workplace that year.

To help reduce these types of accidents, Suncor Energy recently invested $285,000 in the David and Joan Lynch School of Engineering Safety and Risk Management to conduct a two-year research project to enhance risk management tools to guard against ground hazards posed to personnel on worksites across the province.

“When you think about a tailings facility, what often comes to mind is the safety measures in place against a catastrophic failure. As far as ongoing operations and worker safety are concerned, there hasn’t been much done,” said Lianne Lefsrud, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering and the lead of the research team. “We have identified an important gap in the research, which we aim to fill.”

The research focuses on enhancing worker awareness and safety at tailings storage and fluid tailings transportation facilities such as ponds, dykes, dams, and pipelines.

Potential ground hazards around these facilities 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 first one of its kind, the project has the potential for making ‘invisible’ hazards more visible, creating additional safety measures with a layer of protection analysis approach, and enhancing worker safety in other fields—similar methodologies could apply to railroads, and even cyber security.

“We will develop a methodology to enhance occupational health and safety hazard management tools at the field-level that address the potential for ground hazards,” said Renato Macciotta Pulisci, a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering research associate and one of the research team members.

By the end of the project, oil sands facilities operators will have an extra layer of protection against potential geotechnical hazards added to the safety tools they already use.

Honouring Jerry’s memory

The investment comes as a result of a negotiated agreement between the Crown and Suncor in which a provincial court judge ordered the energy producer to fund the project to help manage ground hazards that endanger personnel in their day-to-day operations.

“The penalty money will directly be addressing the root causes of the incident,” said Macciotta Pulisci.

“With this outcome we are not just addressing these specific concerns, but also building the capacity for similar issues in the wider industry,” said Michael Hendry, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and one of the research team members.

“We were heartbroken by Jerry’s death and we want to make sure something like this never happens again to another oil sands employee across the industry,” said Mark Little, Suncor’s president of Upstream. “This investment to strengthen industry safety is an important way to honour Jerry’s memory and make sure his passing was not in vain. This is the commitment we’ve made to Jerry’s family.”

Spillover learning

The project’s kick-off meeting is scheduled for next week in Fort McMurray where the research team and students—Kristen Tappenden, a post-doctoral fellow, and Kathleen Baker, a master’s student—will be interviewing tailings operators to identify their current health and safety practices for field operations, investigating potential ground hazards, and reviewing risk management regulations.

Although initiated and funded solely by Suncor Energy, other oil sands companies have expressed their interest in this project.

“The project is a learning process for the focal company, but then there’s spillover learning to other related companies in other related industries,” said Lefsrud.

Once the research team has reviewed the current safety measures and identified potential geotechnical hazards associated with tailings facilities and daily operations, it will develop ‘red flags’ heralding the onset of a ground hazard, and present safety recommendations to the participating companies that would enhance worker safety.

“There’s going to be more work, whether or not this will involve working with oil sands tailings operators, or with mining companies in other regions, and even other industry partners whose workforce might be exposed to ground hazards,” said Lefsrud.