June/July 2014

Wildlife safety in the spotlight

Tragic event at Suncor plant raises questions about how to protect workers

By Ian Ewing

On May 7, a Suncor Energy instrument technician, Lorna Weafer, was mauled and killed by a black bear while working at the Suncor base plant north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Although bear attacks are uncommon to begin with, what makes this incident especially perplexing is the apparent determination shown by the animal during the attack. The site in question is a large industrial facility, which bears typically avoid. As many as six of Weafer’s co-workers used fire extinguishers, air horns and even a water cannon to try to scare the animal away, to no avail. The adult male bear would back off momentarily but then return. The mauling lasted roughly an hour, Mike Ewald, an Alberta Fish and Wildlife investigator, told CBC News.

Predatory attacks like this are extremely unusual but do account for most black bear fatalities. The last black bear fatality recorded in Alberta occurred in 1991 and was the result of a predatory attack. Fewer than two fatal black bear encounters happen per year in all of North America.

At Suncor, bear safety awareness materials, advisories, and information sessions are made available to workers, according to spokesperson Sneh Seetal. During times of high bear activity, increased emphasis is placed on bear safety. This includes placing posters around work sites and facilitating discussions during safety meetings. Employees working in the bush carry bear spray and those in the base camp carry air horns to scare aggressive wildlife away.

Suncor remains tight-lipped about any potential changes to its wildlife safety training and procedures while their investigation is ongoing, but Seetal said additional bear safety reminders have been provided to employees, and provincial Fish and Wildlife officers have increased bear surveillance around the company’s Fort McMurray site.

Will Gibson, a spokesperson for Syncrude, which has a large oil sands operation north of Fort McMurray, said the community is really shook up over the incident. “Fort McMurray is a city, but in some ways, it’s very much a small town,” he said. “I’ve lived here 10 years and I’ve never heard of something like this and I’ve never heard of a black bear doing something like this.”

Since the incident, Gibson said Syncrude has issued “dos and don’ts” reminders about bear safety, adding wildlife protection is part of its employee orientation training. But the event has not caused Syncrude to review its wildlife training and protection policies, as it is waiting until the investigation is completed “to see if there’s anything that we can learn from it,” he said. At that point, the company will decide whether to reassess or change its policies.

Many jurisdictions have put in place measures to try to ensure safety for those working in the wilderness. “We have some general outlines according to the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) legislation in Alberta,” said Brookes Merritt, a spokesperson with Alberta’s OHS department, noting that a lot of the specific responsibilities about training are left up to employers. Companies are required to complete hazard assessment plans for each potential workplace risk, for instance. If a company was found to have inadequate plans, Merritt said the department could demand that a plan be updated, enforce a stop work order or level more punitive measures.

 Black bear attack statistics

Like in Alberta, companies in Yukon must also develop a wildlife management plan. “That plan has to identify the risks associated with the surrounding environment and mitigate those risks,” said Richard Mostyn, a public affairs liaison at the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board. “Companies must outfit their at-risk workers with appropriate protective gear. That gear might include bear spray or any other deterrents.”

Compliance is hard to track, however. Yukon OHS officers perform random inspections to determine if the risk assessments and mitigation measures taken by companies are adequate, but they are not responsible for assessing risk. That is up to employers, supervisors and workers, said Mostyn. The territory’s government is in the early stages of developing a database to track the number and severity of bear encounters, among other things. Eventually, that would provide them with more data-driven conclusions about wildlife encounters and how to prevent or mitigate them. The Yukon government publishes a widely used brochure, entitled “Guidelines for Industrial Activity in Bear Country,” which represents a consolidated set of recommendations to help companies navigate the planning requirements to reduce bear attractants.

Good camp design and maintenance is essential, and vigilance will ensure that bears never become habituated to humans or conditioned to associate humans with food sources. Ensuring that bears cannot access food, garbage, and other attractants like petroleum products, and also setting boundaries for wildlife around camps are highly effective measures. Incinerating food waste after every meal – not burying it or burning it in an open pit or drum – eliminates many attractive odours.

Total prevention is very difficult, though, since human-wildlife conflicts are a product of numerous variables, explained Ramona Maraj, a carnivore biologist with the Yukon government. The availability of natural food resources and the location of the camp are big factors. So too is the personality of individual animals – bears, like any animal, can be unpredictable. Indeed, for all the wildlife safety procedures in place, some experts doubt whether any amount of training could have prevented a determined attack like the one at Suncor.

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