In the past seven years, Keith Heffner, corporate safety director for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, in Anchorage, Ala., has witnessed the number of OSHA recordables of his company's contractors drop as low as the temperature on an Alaska thermostat. A minimum of 1,000 contractor employees help 832 full-time Alyeska workers excavate pipe as deep as 20 feet in permafrost (permanently frozen soil) in order to maintain the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline that keeps the more than 20 percent of U.S.'s domestic crude oil flowing from the North Slope in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to the state's southern town of Valdez, the nearest ice-free port. Intense cold, darkness and raging winds contribute to most accidents, says Heffner. Eighty feet of snow alone falls in Thompson Pass, which is located above the Valdez Marine Terminal. Sixty-four percent of accidents are due to slips, trips and falls. But thanks to Alyeska's own 15-person fire and safety staff, contractors working on the pipeline learned to work safely in Arctic conditions. Alyeska's safety staff comprises three 'leads' who head the safety peer group which oversees safety at all Alyeska sites (sites are located in Fairbanks, Ala., the Valdez Marine Terminal, and headquarters are in Anchorage, Ala.). Remaining staffers in the other three sites are six safety specialists, a fire chief, two assistant fire chiefs and a fire brigade at Valdez to prevent fires on 18 crude oil tankers holding 500,000 barrels of fuel. Together, Alyeska's safety staff helped the company's contractors reduce their disappointing 1991 OSHA recordable rate of 5.0 to 1.99 by 1997. Alyeska and its contractors knew both companies could profit from accident prevention techniques. If the contractors could prevent accidents, keeping their workers' compensation rates low, cost savings would 'trickle down' to Alyeska. So in 1994, the company and its contractors partnered to step up and standardize training.

Laboring in Mother Nature's fury

Contractors help Alyeska by digging trenches and re-coating pipeline valves. During the process, workers excavate the pipe and make sure its surrounding trenches are big and safe enough for them. Then, they remove pipeline coatings, sandblast the pipe, recoat and rewrap it. Alyeska supervisors inspect the pipe when the process is complete. More than 50 percent of contractor time is spent working outdoors around pump stations, says Heffner, which is when they face Mother Nature's fury the most. Alaska's bitter cold winters make slips, trips and falls a frequent injury, says Heffner. Loading materials at the Valdez Marine Terminal during high winds and snow storms is particularly challenging. At minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, workers are forbidden to operate hydraulic machinery because it could shut down. "If a hydraulic hose bursts and you have an oil spill, then you may have an environmental and a safety problem on your hands," says Heffner. When Heffner and his safety staff sat down with their contractors four years ago, they turned up ways of cutting down on climate-related slips and falls:

  • First, footwear with spiked soles was offered to Alyeska and contractor workers to improve footing on icy surfaces [Vehicles with studded tires were also provided to facilitate driving on ice and snow],

  • Next, back injuries, which stem from slips, trips and falls and an aging workforce, says Heffner, were addressed by providing written information to employees on how to prevent those injuries. Five back injuries sustained by Alyeska and contractor employees in 1997 concerned Heffner and his fellow staffers. To prevent more, stretching classes were also offered to operators of heavy equipment before each shift. And Alyeska is still looking for other ways of preventing back injuries. " Finally, Alyeska and its contractors jointly adopted a basic training program, focusing on PPE, hazcom, lockout/tagout and more. Alyeska, contractors, and unions,which represent employees,revise the manual annually. Most recently, the groups edited out copy about certain administrative procedures such as filing paperwork, because the material was unnecessary for contractors.

Another means of reducing OSHA recordables for both Alyeska and contractors is taking better care of equipment and tools. Heffner says less rework is needed if those items are cared for properly. In fact, he says that in the past three years, Alyeska has documented and seen direct relationships between overtime and rework rates in relation to equipment and tool maintenance.

Change is good

Since implementing these changes, contractor safety performance has improved steadily, says Heffner. After saving $500,000 in workers' compensation costs in a year through safer work habits, one contractor reduced its overhead costs. Alyeska then experienced a cost savings, but Heffner says it's tough to determine exactly how much. Alyeska and contractors have also been recognized at the annual Alaska Governor's Safety Conference for the past four years because of low illness and injury rates. And two years ago, Alyeska and its contractors' achieved a combined lost time rate of .33 per every 100 workers,four times better than the national oil industry average for 1996, according to statistics from the National Safety Council. In all, Alyeska saw efforts between themselves and contractors,having to teach safe work measures to the ones hired to lighten their load,not as a burden but as an opportunity for all parties to reduce costs and injuries, says Heffner.