June/July 2014

Raising the safety bar

An interview with Syncrude veteran and safety guru Gord Winkel

By Vivian Danielson

Canada’s mining industry has a safety record that beats many other industrial sectors, yet Gord Winkel believes miners can do even better by continuously improving and sharing their practices. Toward that end, in 2010 he retired as a vice-president from Syncrude Canada to lead the engineering safety and risk management (ESRM) program at the University of Alberta. This pioneering program is the only one of its kind in Canada and has operated since 1988 to develop strategies to continuously reduce risks to people, the environment, facilities and production.

Winkel, a three-time CIM Distinguished Lecturer (2002, 2008 and 2013), has been a tireless safety advocate, working to advance practices in the surface mining industry through knowledge sharing, technology, best practices and innovation.

CIM: What motivated you to make the leap from the mining industry to academia?

Winkel: During 30 years of operations management in mining and mineral processing, we received many opportunities to learn and build up bench strength in safety and risk management that will be helpful to the next generation of engineers and business leaders. It’s fair to say that this journey turned into an opportunity to give back to students the benefit of this learning.

CIM: What goals do you hope to achieve with the ESRM program?

Winkel: The vision is that every engineering student will take safety and risk management as part of their curriculum and take it with them as a core competency into the future. We also want to open up these studies to all disciplines – other sciences and business. Safety is a moral imperative and the most important workplace value. A thousand people die nationally every year only because they went to work. That has to change.

CIM: Canada’s mining industry has evolved into one of the safest heavy industries, yet the public seems unaware of this achievement. Why, and what can be done to change that?

Winkel: Good news seldom makes the front page so people tend to look at mines based on perceptions that are formed from media reported incidents. Everyone in the Canadian mining industry (418,000 people as of 2013) should be an ambassador and help people understand the positive facts about responsible development, cutting-edge technology application to improve performance, award-wining reclam­ation programs, how mining contributes greatly to our standard of living, and of course achievement in improved safety performance. Facts are friendly and it’s everyone’s job to share them.

CIM: You have a great deal of experience in the oil sands industry. What are the most challenging issues there and how are they being met?

Winkel: This industry constitutes mining, mineral processing, utilities, upgrading and more all under one roof, and each sector has different risk exposures and challenges to be managed. Each part of the operation needs to be risk-assessed, right from the ground up, and you also have to risk-assess over the life cycle of the project. I think the industry is doing a good job of managing this unparalleled diversity of risk, and in the face of rising societal expectations and some disappointing incidents, needs to continue this improvement journey.

CIM: The oil sands industry has been transformed by advanced technologies. Can you provide an example?

Winkel: Syncrude pioneered hydrotransport technology that moved extractive processing into the mining cut. Crushers were used in combination with new technologies to mix the mined oil sands with hot water in-pit, and the resulting slurry was piped to the processing plant. The utilization of efficient pipeline transport also vigorously mixed the oil sand slurry and liberated the bitumen from the sand and water. This in turn enabled another new technology called low temperature extraction. This suite of new technologies significantly reduced the energy footprint for mining and mineral processing.

We did our first commercial-scale hydrotransport pilot project in October 1993 and incorporated it into our next mine pit development in 1997. We made hydrotransport technology available to the rest of the industry, where it has become the baseline technology for all surface mining operations in the oil sands. It’s been a game-changer.

As with any new technology, you must have a protocol in place to assess risk at every development step, and take the time and effort to safely integrate it into the overall operation.

CIM: Do you see technologies in development that will improve safety in the future, perhaps examples that are already commercialized but not used in mining?

Winkel: The industry is always looking at other sectors, and conducts its own research and development, but always with risk in mind even at the conceptual stage. When things are too risky, it’s best to back off until better solutions are found. The industry also shares information worldwide through forums such as SMART [Surface Mining Association for Research and Technology]. Automated mining equipment, vibration reduction, collision avoidance and fatigue monitoring systems are just some of the new safety supportive technologies under consideration.

CIM: The oil sands attract thousands of employees from all over the world. How do you design and implement health and safety programs for such a diverse workforce?

Winkel: People from diverse cultures may have done things differently before, so you have the responsibility to support them with the latest and best training in practices to manage workplace risks. People like to work in places with a strong safety culture. But safety isn’t just about training or best practices. It has to be instilled as a core value and an imperative ahead of any other objective. That requires leadership from the top, and the involvement of all employees to become leaders in safety at every organizational level.

CIM: The “human factor” is often cited as a cause of safety incidents even when safety training programs are in place. How important are drug and alcohol policies and other types of initiatives to reduce human error in the workplace?

Winkel: We need to be careful how we view the human factor and humbly acknowledge that none of us is perfect; there will be lapses in judgment and errors will be made. Good safety systems are designed with this reality in mind. This works best with a team approach, where people are engaged, observing and looking out for each other.

CIM: Do you see a need for greater collaboration between industry, educational institutions and government agencies to ensure best practices in industrial health and safety?

Winkel: I think they’re doing a good job now, and new opportunities for collaboration are opening up through the Internet and other networking technologies. There is also an opportunity to increasingly engage smaller companies and contractors and extend this type of collaboration to them.

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