3 Things Overheard at the 2016 Petroleum Safety Conference

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Courtesy of Intelex Technologies Inc.

Last week, the ENFORM Petroleum Safety Conference (PSC) brought oil and gas safety professionals together once again to connect with each other in beautiful Banff. Held once a year, the conference draws hundreds of participants and vendors with one purpose in mind: honoring the moral – and legal – obligation of ensuring employee safety in the oil and gas industry. Presentation topics ranged from cultivating safety culture to the challenges of addressing human error in safety programs, leaving everyone in attendance with lots of inspiration and food for thought. It’s a terrific conference to attend, made only more spectacular by the backdrop of the Rocky mountains.

I had the opportunity to attend this conference for the second year and to talk with many attendees. While everyone there had interesting stories and a unique perspective to share on the state of safety and the oil industry, I heard three common themes:

“The new normal.”

When I attended last year’s PSC, it was amid the first six months of the price of oil slide. Eyes were wild and speculation rampant—one executive told me indicators were that oil would be back north of $70 per barrel in the fall of 2015. If only.

This year, the talk is that we’re in the midst of a market shift. During the conference oil hovered around $45 per barrel.

One vendor told me, “We’re down about 40% from last year, but we’ve figured out a way to make money. We had to.” Other vendors reported the same news: business is down, but business isn’t bad.

If sub-$50 per barrel oil is indeed the new normal, then operating companies will adjust. This will mean a greater emphasis on doing more with less, ensuring maximum value from assets, and adding technologies which are broadly applicable across multiple disciplines.

Despite these new challenges, safety remains paramount.

“Safety is a value.”

During the first day of sessions, Gord Winkel, former Vice President of Syncrude Canada and presently the Chair and Industrial Professor for the Safety and Risk Management Program at the University of Alberta, spoke to attendees about creating high performing safety cultures. During his talk he emphasized that safety must be positioned as a value, not a goal or an objective. Goals and objectives can be “achieved” and checked off a list in a way that safety cannot be. Goals and objectives may also change as a result of shifting priorities or market demands. But values are constant and they help to guide company decision-making on a fundamental level. This is how companies must view safety in order to ensure that it isn’t compromised when times get a little tough.

Being in software I tend to equate safety with procedures, workflows, and reports. In reality, safety is a value we try to instill in our workers so they make the right decision intrinsically. Making safety a value ensures it is not only held as a paramount concern, but a permanent one as well.

An area manager from a midstream company told me, “No matter what, I find budget to send my people managers to these safety conferences. It’s important to be immersed in safety talk.”

Simply put, there is no price-per-barrel at which safety is not a value in the oil and gas industry.

“Safety is personal.”

In the backdrop of this year’s PSC were the wildfires which engulfed the city of Fort McMurray. Located 400 kms north of Edmonton, “Fort Mac” is the operating home of the Canadian oil patch. If you’ve seen the distressing images you understand the devastation on the town. At the time of writing this post, approximately 90,000 residents have been evacuated.

Everyone at the conference knew at least one person affected by the fires. Some had to leave early to check in on family.

The response to the crisis also showed the spirit of the Canadian oil sands. Edmonton has taken in tens of thousands of evacuees. Shelter and support was given to those who lost their homes. Alberta school boards have opened their doors to welcome 12,000 evacuated students. Meanwhile, bars in Calgary were donating proceeds from each pint to wildfire relief.

For the safety professionals I spoke with, this tragedy really brought home the point of the conference and why it is that they do what they do. Nothing is more important than ensuring the safety and security of their fellow workers, their loved ones, and the people they care about. In the face of new challenges and threats, I have no doubt that Canada’s oil and gas industry and the people of Alberta will continue to band together to do everything they can to protect one another and persevere.

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