David Yager – Yager Management Ltd.
Oilfield Service Management Consulting – Oil & Gas Writer – Energy Policy Analyst
April 26, 2017
If you asked people to identify the safest industry in Alberta it is unlikely they would choose oil and gas. For years employment in the oilfields has been considered a dangerous occupation where high pay lured the naïve into an excessively dangerous working environment.
And that was indeed the case. Thirty years ago. But since 1987 – thanks to some not-so-gentle coaxing from then Health and Safety Minister Jim Dinning – Alberta’s upstream oil and gas industry has become Alberta’s best example of corporate commitment to worker safety, training and accident prevention. Statistically it is safest industry in the province.
One of the key elements of this extraordinary safety success has been pre-employment drug and alcohol testing, post-incident impairment testing and, where possible, random and site access testing. Now the federal government is determined to legalize the recreational use of marijuana next July despite serious objections from multiple industry groups. That the Justin Trudeau government is pushing forward before scientific and proven standards for impairment and testing are perfected and put into law can only be described as reckless.
Let’s define safety success. Alberta Labour publishes an annual Workplace Injury, Disease and Fatality Statistics Provincial Summary for all industries. The last data available is for 2015. The provincial average for disabling industries on the job was 2.36 per 100 person-years of employment. The broad category of Mining and Petroleum Development came in at 0.88. The province-wide statistic for Lost Time Accident (LTA) frequency was 1.36. The oilpatch reported 0.25. The report reads, “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 other major employment sectors for which Alberta Labour reports statistics are (disabling injury claim frequency followed by LTA frequency):
- Agriculture and Forestry, 2.53/1.87
- Business, Personal and Professional Services, 1.44/0.92
- Construction and Construction Trade Services, 2.59/1.13
- Manufacturing, Processing and Packaging, 3.25/1.22
- Provincial and Municipal Government, Education and Health Services, 2.75/1.98
- Transportation, Communication and Utilities, 2.80/1.51
- Wholesale and Retail, 2.65/1.37
As was written in the April 19 edition of Oilweek on this subject by your writer, “It was safer in the oilpatch than in the government. What they heck are they doing to each other in the offices, plants, stores and warehouses while oilpatch crews are working in the field?”
The skeptical would say one reason oil and gas had an excellent safety record in 2015 was because of the downturn; nobody moves, nobody gets hurt. The figures for Mining and Petroleum Development for the robust year 2014 were 1.46 and 0.42 for disabling injury and LTA rates respectively. But even when the oilpatch was still booming in 2014, it nonetheless reported materially lower incident frequency rates than any of the other employment sectors Alberta Labour tracks.
To put recent safety improvement statistics into perspective, back in the mid-1980s the average provincial LTA rate for all industries was 3.9, almost triple 2015 levels. But for drilling and service rigs specifically it was 16.0. While Alberta Labour doesn’t break out rigs from the broader category of Mining and Petroleum Development, the reader can be assured it is a fraction of what it was before the upstream oil and gas industry embarked upon a three-decade mission to become as safe as possible and, as history would prove, the safest in the province. Possibly the country.
Impairment testing has long been a major component of the solution. The oil and gas workplace is indeed high risk. Workers must drive to and from remote locations. Worldwide, driving is one of the most dangerous activities we do. Most of the work is done with or around heavy machinery. Hydrocarbons production and development are characterized by high pressures and flammable and/or poisonous hydrocarbons. This is not a place to be on the job in any condition besides 100% rested, alert and sober.
Pre-employment drug and alcohol testing has long been demanded by responsible companies, as has post-incident testing. However, efforts to implement mandatory random drug testing have been regularly challenged in court. Each time our safety-conscious industry has consistently lost for human rights considerations. The latest twist is courts treating impairment test failure as an employer’s “duty to accommodate”. If a worker tests positive and is terminated, courts are now ruling the employee can challenge the firing by claiming to have a dependency defined as a “disability”, not reckless behavior. Increasingly provincial governments and human rights commissions are saying even if the worker knowingly appears on the jobsite impaired, employers are being forced to rehabilitate, not terminate.
Regardless, some operators test regularly and figure the risk of injury on the job is greater than the risk of losing another court case over an alleged human rights violation.
The stories surrounding worker versus employer when it comes to being impaired at work are legion. The job itself creates challenges because most activity takes place in remote locations short of things to do after work. Workers are highly paid but when not working are often bored to tears. They also tend to be younger, fit, frisky and adventurous. One way too many cope with boredom, isolation and loneliness is drugs and alcohol. They certainly have the money. Substituting synthetic or somebody else’s urine during drug tests is but one of the ways invented to keep working and keep using drugs.
Marijuana creates unique challenges. Compared to “hard drugs” like cocaine, crack or crystal meth, pot is relatively harmless (unless it is consumed before or on the job) because for most it is not addictive, doesn’t impair sleep, and leaves workers relatively functional the next day. However, it lingers in the system for up to 30 days and can be detected in hair samples until that hair is cut off. So a worker can test positive for marijuana usage but not be impaired. Harder drugs leave the body much sooner. Therefore, those determined to escape reality have been known to use harder drugs than pot just to keep their jobs. An odd solution to the problem.
That pot will be legalized in the non-working world should come as no surprise. In recent years it has been hailed as a cure or remedy for a variety of disorders, hence the legalization of “medical marijuana”. The screening process to gain access to a medical marijuana dispensary is hardly exhaustive. No medical referrals are usually required. In the U.S., several states have legalized pot. The Liberals ran on a platform to do the same in the 2015 election. After some study, Ottawa intends to legalize possession and consumption of small quantities next year. Public companies that grow pot are, for the moment, some of the hottest stocks on the market.
But nobody asked industry for its views. Before a decision was made public employers urged Ottawa and the provinces to think this through. In a recent article in Association Corner in The Roughneck, the Petroleum Services Association of Canada wrote, “On December 21, 2016, nine major trade associations including PSAC and CAPP wrote several federal cabinet ministers including the ministries of justice, safety, transport and employment pleading, ‘As the employers of hundreds of thousands of workers across Canada, we feel it is imperative that several issues and concerns are addressed prior to or at the same time as the legislation to legalize marijuana is introduced’.
Other concerned employers included the Canadian Construction Association, Canadian Fuels Association, Canadian Trucking Alliance, Canadian Urban Transit Association, Federal Regulated Employers, Railway Association of Canada and Toronto Transit Commission. That covers just about every moving piece of heavy industrial equipment in the country.
After stating in detail the obvious hazards of workers impaired by pot consumption prior to or on the job can create for themselves and others, the associations urged the federal government to concurrently introduce an acceptable and measurable marijuana impairment standard as it the case for alcohol; clear and enforceable workplace drug and alcohol enforcement regulations; and more legal balance in favor of the employer for the ‘duty to accommodate’ issue.”
Acceptable or unacceptable levels and testing for alcohol impairment have around for years. Testing by breath sample is standardized and accurate. Strengths of various types of booze are identified on the label by alcohol content. The number of drinks of various types of liquor in a given time period relative to a person’s body weight are widely published. And the impairment levels are backed up by laws that are regularly enforced and in language anybody who can read can understand.
For marijuana, no such measurements, metrics, rules or even accurate testing devices exist. As written above, a worker can test positive for pot consumption but it does not mean the worker is impaired. Lots of companies are scrambling to develop pot testing methods and devices but so far there is no reliable or effective method of differentiating between flagging historical consumption and current impairment.
On April 11 Enform, the Alberta safety organization funded by oil and gas industry trade associations, issued an urgent appeal for “…the federal and provincial governments to outright ban marijuana in hazardous workplaces after the drug is legalized”, according to a Calgary Herald articles. Enform CEO Cameron McGillvery said, “If people in safety-sensitive positions, or safety-sensitive projects or work, are not competent to do the work, a catastrophic event could unfold. That’s the sort of thing that causes great concern to the industry”, the Herald reported. The article concluded, “Until drug testing can detect intoxication with legal limits, Enform believes governments must allow employers to impose a zero-tolerance policy in workplaces where safety is paramount”.
Which, of course, pleads for another court challenge. If employers can’t enforce mandatory random drug testing when pot is illegal, the possibility they can do it after it is legalized seems remote.
You have to shake your head at what governments do and why they do it. It appears the determination to deliver on an election promise far outweighs the implications of what this might mean to industry. The federal Justice Laws Website under the category of Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations contains hundreds of pages of statutes, regulations and guidelines about what employers must do to protect workers.
These have taken decades to develop and, as is common in health and safety enforcement, are usually introduced only after something awful has happened. There are scores of rules about everything imaginable including acceptable sound levels, explosives handling, protective clothing, identification of hazardous goods and proper decompression after underwater diving.
In 2004 Ottawa put worker safety in the criminal code with Bill C-45 which affects, “Everyone who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task.” It was nicknamed the “Westray Bill” after the disastrous Westray coal mine explosion which killed 26 workers in 1992 in Nova Scotia. In a subsequent public inquiry, it was determined the incident was the fault of management, bureaucrats and politicians who together created a clearly unsafe workplace.
What else could you call legalizing pot without impairment and testing guidelines over the objections of industry except the exact opposite of the intent of Bill C-45?
On the pot file, our photogenic and hip Prime Minister soldiers on. It is not that consuming marijuana should be against the law. For all intensive purposes it is already legal. But to legalize another form of intoxication without medical, scientific and legally enforced guidelines to maintain and ensure worker safety is irresponsible. They have just over a year to fix this. Here’s hoping.
About David Yager – Yager Management Ltd.
Based in Calgary, Alberta, David Yager is a former oilfield services executive and the principal of Yager Management Ltd. Yager Management provides management consultancy services to the oilfield services industry in a number of areas including M&A, Strategic Planning, Restructuring and Marketing. He has been writing about the upstream oil and gas industry and energy policy and issues since 1979.