Spare a thought for our workers this winter. To help deliver energy, they’ll be braving weather conditions so harsh simply thinking about it can evoke chills.
The challenges of oil sands development are well documented. The location of the oil sands resource, for example, requires equipment, materials and many of the workers to be trucked or flown hundreds of kilometres from large population centres (such as Edmonton or Calgary).
Winter is a well-known complication for anyone who lives and works in northern Alberta, but for the oil sands industry, it poses unique challenges. In this part of Canada, the average temperature is -19°C (-2°F), and the mercury can drop to as low as -50°C (-58°F). Heavy snowfall and blizzards are common, and daylight is scarce. On the shortest day (December 21), the region gets just 6.8 hours of natural light.
Keeping our operations going
Nonetheless, thousands of people work through the winter to keep oil sands sites humming. Suncor alone employs approximately 6,500 people in the Fort McMurray region.
The number one challenge, and our top priority, is keeping people safe, remembering that at extremely cold temperatures, even routine tasks become complex due to extra protective clothing and potentially hazardous conditions.
Safety for our people
Winter clothing is paramount. Employees are encouraged to dress in three layers to stave off the cold and prevent dampness penetrating (wet layers don’t insulate). Special hand, head and foot protection is also essential. And of course, it needs to be safe. For example, loose clothing articles like drawstrings can tangle in machinery, and some garments may not be adequately fire-resistant.
Shifts that involve exposure to the cold include frequent breaks in winter shelters and vehicles to give workers a chance to warm up. And employees are trained to avoid hypothermia and spot the warning signs in co-workers.
Effects of the cold
Another challenge is combating the effect of extreme cold on equipment. Metals become brittle in severe cold and at -29°C (-20°F) certain metals such as steel can no longer easily withstand abrupt shocks from heavy loads. Rubber becomes inflexible and this can lead to conveyor and power drive belt failures.
Condensation is also a problem as equipment goes between cold and warm environments, causing contaminated fuel lines and formation of ice crystals inside the fuel system. Diesel fuels change greatly as waxes form. Meanwhile oil sands ore in very cold weather breaks apart in much larger chunks than normal - about the size of small car – putting a strain on heavy handling equipment such as truck shovels and crushers.
In such conditions, it is important to increase the frequency of inspecting, repairing and replacing gear, but also to avoid major maintenance during winter months (this is done in the fall and spring).
Suncor and the other oil sands developers are not unfamiliar with these challenges. Over the past 40 years we have learned to respect the northern Albertan climate but we have also learned how to overcome the difficulties it throws our way.