Tracking Technology Improving Oil Sands in New Ways

Tracking Technology Leads to Improved Worker Safety and Productivity

Companies have used electronic tracking technology to monitor workers at remote oil sands facilities for years now. Beginning in spring of 2015, Shell added GPS tracking for workers and required approximately 1,500 contractors and employees to wear tracking devices. The small wearable devices provide GPS location and Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) information to Shell’s monitoring system.

Microchip RFID Rice
Small RFID chips, here compared to a grain of rice, are incorporated in consumer products and wearables.

The technology isn’t new. Employers use similar technology in the parcel delivery business to track vehicles and drivers. The leisure and entertainment industry has also adopted it. Some cruise lines use electronic tracking and RFID to account for passengers on board their ships.

Shell initially introduced the tracking technology as a pilot project involving contractor employees at the Albian Sands mining operation. In its announcement, the company was careful to focus on the increased safety and better human resource management that the technology would support.

Employee safety was the primary purpose of the requirement. But the experiment also led to improved management and increased productivity.

It seems workers feel the need to be at their best when they know their employer is keeping tabs on them.

Big Brother is Watching

The phenomenon was summarized by Geoff Hill of Accenture Calgary in a recent CBC News article: “the personnel tracking systems are attracting a lot of attention in Canada given their many uses. The data they provide can improve efficiency by identifying choke points in worker flows. They also monitor how many contractors are on site and for how long, which can help reconcile billing.”

In the same article, the president of a union representing over 3,400 Suncor workers explained that “‘Big Brother is watching’ is becoming more a part of the workplace. But so far they haven’t had one disciplinary hearing where it was indicated those wearing tracking devices were out of the workplace area or wasting time or anything like that.”

Lessons from the Wildfires

The Alberta wildfires of 2016 made a singular impression on all of Canada. Natural conditions of dry weather and virgin forests created conditions for an enormous set of blazes. The size and intensity of the wildfires were unprecedented.

The blazes crossed natural and artificial barriers and, according to reports from the Canadian Press, destroyed nearly nine $billion in commercial and residential property. It forced an evacuation of about 80,000 people including oil sands workers and their families. RFID technology in emergencies can be useful in a number of ways:

  • Emergency evacuations can occur at any time and without regard to workplace actions or events.
  • Events such as the wildfires can interrupt normal types of communications.
  • Electronic tracking technology with RFID can speed up emergency assistance to injured or distressed workers.

Fort McMurray Wildfires

Advantages of GPS and RFID Technology

The technology is passive and requires no effort on the part of the wearer except in activating the distress signal. It is adaptable to the needs of the industrial setting. The data collection is continuous and does not interfere with worker tasks.

  • Locating employees is crucial to safety in emergency conditions.
  • In heavy industrial environments, a wearable electronic device with a panic button or distress signal adds an important layer of protection.

Privacy Concerns are Important

When faced with new oil sands technology requirements such as wearable RFID and GPS, many workers initially feel a sense of change and less freedom. But the technology has strong benefits for worker safety. The August 2015 issue of Alberta Oil Magazine was an early news piece that addressed worker and union concerns with the pilot program and worker privacy.

The technology does have a potential for uses beyond worker safety and worksite management. The limits set by the company are important, and oil sands workers and labor organizations must be able to rely on them.

RFID Protection Oil sands technology

Data Creep and Discovery

The sternest warnings on the use of RFID in employment came from a 2008 report to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. According to Alberta Oil Magazine, the report cites the small step from RFID tracking to a form of workplace surveillance. The article also points to the unintended uses of RFID data such as in civil or criminal investigations as proof of a person’s location. There are no cases on record of discipline or other actions against employees based on RFID data such as a person away from a work assignment area.

Group Data Collection

The Shell system does not attribute the data it collects to individuals. According to the company, the RFID database is an aggregate or overview; it is not as accurate as GPS, and the range of accuracy is from fifty to one hundred feet. Therefore, as described by CBC News, most of the data collected would cover groups of employees rather than individuals.

Creating a Safety Zone

The emergency evacuation in 2016 due to the wildfires demonstrated the effectiveness of RFID as a management tool.

Suncor reported that the tool was particularly effective. They were able to confirm the safety and evacuation status of 1,000 employees in about thirty minutes.

Employers in high-risk industrial activities have discovered further uses of the technology. Some RFID devices have sensors that can detect harmful gasses, unusual low activity, and signs of an injured worker.

Protecting the Human Resource

The technology paid benefits when applied to equipment. The human resource is by far the most important asset in the oil sands production site. Working with labor organizations and providing adequate information to employees, Shell has made it clear that the addition of RFID tracking will improve employee safety as well as production and site management. As noted in statement in Alberta Oil Magazine, safety is a concern of management, labor organizations, and all oil sands employees.

“If there’s an opportunity for us to increase the level of safety that our workers have on the job, then I think we should be open-minded about it.” – Warren Fraleigh, Executive Director of the Building Trades of Alberta.

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