Today is Workers Memorial Day. This post discusses one of the thousands of occupational fatalities that occur every year around the world.

On Sunday, April 20th,  Shayne Daye, a 27-year old electrician and technician, died as a result of an injury sustained while working at Suncor’s Oil Sands site about 15 miles north of Fort McMurray, Alberta in western Canada. Suncor is one of Canada’s largest energy companies and credits itself as the first company to develop Canada’s oil sands. Company spokesperson Sneh Seetal said Daye – who’d worked for Suncor for seven years – was working on an electrical system associated with “base-plant” equipment when the incident occurred.

In a statement issued on April 20th Suncor said company “emergency service personnel responded at approximately 11:30 a.m. when an employee was severely injured while working. The employee was immediately transported to the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre where he was pronounced deceased.” On April 23, in a statement issued on behalf of the Daye family, Suncor named Shayne Daye as the worker who had died. The company has not released more details of the incident.

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) spokesperson Lisa Glover explained that the agency was in the “very early stages” of its investigation but has issued a “stop work order” on the equipment involved in the incident while the investigation proceeds. Glover said the incident occurred while Daye was working on “electrical panels.” The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) confirmed that an investigation is ongoing. Suncor said it is cooperating fully with the investigation and making “stress counseling” and grief counselors available to Daye’s family, co-workers and other employees.

Daye’s death is Suncor Oil Sands’ second workplace fatality of 2014. While Suncor’s news release does not provide details of the incident that occurred on January 19th ,  Alberta OHS’ summary of the incident notes that “A worker went out to check a leak on a pipeline, but didn’t return. The worker was found unresponsive in a pool of sand and water.” According to news reports, the employee was 40-year old Jerry Cooper, a Suncor tailings operator.

Deaths and injuries in Alberta’s extractive industries

In the US, many journalists and others use Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records to investigate company health and safety records.  When compared to the information available through OSHA and BLS, the records publicly available through Alberta OHS do not make it as easy to get a snapshot of industry safety records as do the US databases. Unlike US OSHA records that list inspections, violations, accidents and penalties on one set of online summaries that are searchable by industry sector or company name, the Alberta OHS records separate fatalities from injuries and maintain separate listing of incidents in which charges of Health and Safety Code violations have been filed. Convictions and penalties are also listed separately, and there are no listings comparable to OSHA’s inspection and violation records. Glover explained that Alberta OHS is working on rolling out a system in the next year that will include this information. She also said Alberta’s online records system – which is only a few years old – “is one of the most comprehensive in Canada,” where each province has its own OHS agency.

Alberta also has a different system from those in the US for responding to workplace safety incidents. Alberta OHS can issue an immediate “stop work” order as it has in the most recent Suncor incident. It can also issue a $100 to $500 on-site ticket for a safety violation – an enforcement provision that is new in the past six months. Adjudication of Health and Safety Code violations go through a court process that follows the agency investigation. Any charges must be filed within two years of an incident, and fines accompanying a guilty verdict can be up to $500,000 (Canadian) and can include up to six months imprisonment. The process also allows for “creative sentencing” measures designed to promote workplace health and safety.

A look at the past five years’ records suggests that Alberta’s oil and gas industry has suffered, on an annual average, about a third of the province’s workplace fatalities. Publicly available Alberta OHS records of 2014 workplace fatalities through March 7th indicate five workplace fatalities previous to the April 20th incident – three in mining and petroleum development, one in manufacturing and processing. The April 20th incident will bring Alberta’s 2014 workplace fatality total to six, with four occurring in mining and petroleum development. In 2013, five of Alberta’s 19 workplace fatalities occurred in mining and petroleum development while in 2012, eight of the province’s 23 fatalities occurred in that industry. 2011 was comparatively safer, with only one of the 28 workplace fatalities investigated by Alberta OHS in the mining and petroleum industry, but in 2010, seven of the province’s 33 workplace fatalities occurred in those industries.

Unlike US OSHA records of workplace injuries and fatalities, Alberta OHS workplace fatality summaries available online do not include names of companies or facilities where incidents occurred. Alberta OHS fatality reports are also separated into “incidents investigated by OHS” and “workplace incidents accepted by the Workers Compensation Board.” Investigated incidents include only “workplace incidents,” leaving occupational motor vehicle incidents to be investigated by local police authorities and occupational disease to be reported by physicians.

Alberta OHS maintains on-line “employer records” that can be searched by “employer [business] name” or “industry” – such as “drilling of oil and gas wells,” “drilling, horizontal/angular,” “oil sands/heavy oil R&D,” “oil/gas-expl/dev-upstream operations,” – but these incident records do not include any description of individual incidents. Instead they summarize annual “lost time claims” in terms of a “person-years estimate” based on Alberta’s calculation of a “person year” as “equivalent to one full-time worker working 2,000 hours in a year,” statistics that are presented in comparison with industry-wide and provincial totals.

Separately, Alberta OHS posts online a list of “charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act” that includes “active charges” – those not yet been proven in court – a convictions list that include fines and penalties, and cases under appeal. The “active charges” currently include one filed in February 2014 against Suncor for  “serious burns” a worker incurred in April 2012 “as a result of being sprayed by hot bitumen and steam from a charged bitumen line,” and a January 2012 fatality that resulted from a hydrogen sulfide release at a Rezone Well Servicing Rig at a Sinopec Daylight Energy lease site. Of the remaining list of 18 pending cases that date back to 2010, seven involve incidents that occurred in various parts of the oil and gas industry.

There has been one 2014 “conviction,” thus far. Seven are listed for 2013, 9 in 2012, 20 in 2011 and 11 in 2010. Of these 48 convictions, approximately 22 were related to some aspect of the oil and gas industry. Many of the fines run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of the dozen or so cases currently listed on the Albert OHS “appeals” page, about half involve the oil and gas industry.

According to Alberta Energy – the province’s energy resource development agency – Alberta has the world’s third-highest proven crude oil reserve (about 168 billion barrels), about 98 percent of Canada’s total oil reserves. Alberta Energy fact sheets say one in 16 jobs in Alberta is directly related to the energy business and approximately 121,500 people in Alberta are employed directly by the mining and oil and gas extraction industry. While Alberta’s accounting for fatalities, charges and convictions offers a view of the industry’s current record, it’s difficult to get a sense of ongoing oversight of workplace health and safety or of an individual company’s health and safety history. The updates Alberta OHS says are coming should help increase transparency and highlight problematic patterns.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360Environmental Health PerspectivesEnsia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation. 

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