Backhoe operator drowns at Alberta oil sands project site

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta (Canadan OH&S News) -- A backhoe operator has drowned in an accident on September 3 at a tailings pond at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd's (CNRL) Horizon Oil Sands Project site in Alberta.

At around noon, Richard Boyd Boughner was operating a Caterpillar 235 floating excavator approximately five metres from the shore of the tailings pond when the backhoe flipped onto the operator's side and fell into the pond, reports Barrie Harrison, a spokesman for Alberta Employment and Immigration. The backhoe then sank to a depth of about three metres. Boughner, a 47-year-old from Love, Saskatchewan, was a contract worker employed by Clayton Construction Co Ltd of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.

Workers from CNRL's emergency response team were on the site - north of Fort McMurray - within twenty minutes of the incident, says Peter Janson, vice-president of engineering integration for the project. "Luckily, we had some divers at site on some other work, and we were able to redeploy them and basically get them to the scene," he says. The CNRL team was joined by RCMP officers, and the body of Boughner was recovered at 1:40 pm.

An RCMP release notes that "equipment upsetting" may have been involved in the accident, but Harrison says that the cause of the accident has not yet been determined. Referring to the investigation, Harrison says, "I don't think [that any conclusions can be drawn] until they can remove the machinery, do tests, along with our regular processes of interviewing any witnesses and other employees.... It could be a while before we determine the cause." For its part, CNRL is conducting its own parallel investigation, Janson adds.

The site where the accident took place is once again operational, says Janson. The backhoe itself remains in the pond as of press time as CNRL engineers work on an extraction strategy.

This tragedy comes sixteen months after two serious incidents at the Horizon site involving the collapse of the roof structure at an oil tank erection site. The first of these accidents, on April 24, 2007, claimed the lives of two Chinese temporary workers and injured four others (COHSN, May 7, 2007). On May 12, 2007, the second roof structure collapsed, although no workers were injured as the area was still under a stop work order from the previous accident.

Janson maintains that the accidents are unrelated, citing the vast separation between the two projects in both scope of work and distance (the sites are roughly five kilometres apart).

While an oh&s report on last year's accident has been completed, says Harrison, "Alberta's crown prosecutors are currently reviewing the file to determine whether charges are warranted." Harrison notes that the report will not be released until that decision is made.

Alex Pannu, Director of Public Affairs for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, a union representing many workers on the Horizon site, says that they "will work with the company and Alberta Occupational Health & Safety on the investigation, and certainly if there's anything that can be improved, we'll be there with our health and safety committee to look into that." Pannu, however, notes that as a contract worker, Boughner himself was not a union member.

Incident highlights need for oversight: AFL

For Jason Foster, director of policy analysis at the Alberta Federation of Labour, this latest incident highlights the need for greater oversight by Alberta Employment and Immigration on the Horizon site.

Says Foster, "They allow far too much self-enforcement and self-monitoring of safety procedures, and clearly, at least on this site, it doesn't seem like that's working."

The Horizons Oil Sands Project is located 70 km north of Fort McMurray, and is anticipated to produce up to 500,000 barrels of synthetic crude oil per day when the project reaches full capacity.

Canadian OH&S News, Sept 16, 2008

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