August 20, 2019 5:00 am

Cover-ups, lies ‘a systemic cancer’ in world of oilpatch health and safety breaches: whistleblowers

Former oilpatch helicopter pilot Matthew Linnitt lied in an incident report to CNRL, but blew the whistle when he could no longer live with what he had covered up. He's seen here in Victoria, B.C. on Feb. 8, 2018.

Jennifer Osborne for National Observer
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The words may not have been explicit, but oilpatch contractor Matthew Linnitt says he read between the lines: lie on official documents about an incident that could have killed him, or someone would be fired.

The tacit threat, he alleges, was handed down by his supervisor at Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) after a close call with hydrogen sulfide on a northwestern Alberta well site on May 2, 2016. 

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Hydrogen sulfide, also known as H2S or sour gas, is a toxic substance that can be fatal in high concentrations, and is sometimes leaked from the wellheads, pump jacks, pipes, tanks and flare stacks of oilfields. 

At the time, Linnitt considered himself lucky to have escaped with his life — he was working alone on a remote site in Karr Creek, Alta., when a geyser of fluids and poisonous sour gas erupted from its depths. A valve hadn’t been properly shut down.

He searched for the site’s emergency breathing equipment, only to find that the workers who had improperly sealed the valve had also taken the air packs off site. Without cell service, Linnitt ran far away from the fumes and stayed away until his air monitor told him the sour gas levels no longer posed a threat.

He later faced a difficult choice: he could report what happened and risk being fired for revealing that CNRL had violated safety protocols, or he could lie to save his job. 

Linnitt said he decided to lie in his incident report to the company, writing that he used the site’s emergency breathing equipment after the spill.

He is no longer willing to live with that lie.

“The reality was that I could have died where that incident occurred, and to sweep something like that under the rug… the next guy was just going to die,” he explained in an interview from Victoria. 

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Linnitt now lives in Cumberland, B.C., where he works in trucking. 

In that incident report, obtained by National Observer and Global News, Linnitt was applauded by his CNRL supervisor, a foreman, for “excellent safety practice” for using the air packs. But a conversation Linnitt secretly recorded after the paperwork was filed reveals the foreman knew the emergency air packs weren’t on site. 

A foreman typically oversees extraction operations, and in this case, filled out parts of the incident report alongside Linnitt. 

CNRL declined to comment on this investigation in an emailed statement, and did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.

According to Linnitt, lying on official paperwork to the benefit of industry employers is a transgression rarely caught, but part of a “systemic problem” of oilpatch rule-breaking, in which “good people are incentivized to lie” to keep their jobs. 

He’s not alone: in the course of this investigation, National Observer and Global News spoke with five current and former oil and gas workers in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

All admitted to having lied or omitted facts on official documents about health and safety incidents, or to witnessing someone else do it in order to avoid being fired. 

Despite claims made by the five current and former workers, regulators in Alberta and Saskatchewan confirmed in emailed comments that no oil company has ever been charged or penalized for deliberately filing false or misleading information on official documents. In Alberta, the regulator also notes that proper reporting is a “pillar” of the law, prompting it to consider prosecutions if false reporting is discovered.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), which represents the oil and gas industry nationwide, declined to comment on this investigation, citing lack of evidence to suggest the practice of filing misleading reports is widespread. 

That the workers say the dishonesty occurs under the table is, according to industry observers, not only an indication that the industry’s oversight regime may be permitting companies to endanger workers, but also part of an oilpatch culture of silence that favours profit over employees.

WATCH: No government investigation after Saskatchewan oil worker nearly dies on the job

In the oilpatch, good safety practices can be a matter of life and death. Since 2017, at least five have been killed on the job at sites in Alberta and Saskatchewan. This includes one worker in Alberta who died in May 2018 following exposure to H2S, according to a provincial worker safety report.

On July 12, 2016 — more than two months after his brush with sour gas in Karr Creek — Linnitt raised a variety of health and safety concerns with the human resources department at CNRL. 

In an email chain shared with this investigation, he wrote that he had been sent multiple times, against protocol, to work on sour gas sites alone, without having completed the requisite safety training. Linnitt confessed to falsifying the Karr Creek incident report filed on May 4, 2016, after his initial report, which outlined the missing air packs, triggered a “call from my foreman informing me that if I did not rewrite the report I would be fired.” 

“I was instructed to rewrite the report and include that I was packed up,” Linnitt wrote to the human resources staffer. “If I did not (a senior executive) would want someone fired. So I rewrote the report. I lied and said that I packed up when in fact I did not. I couldn’t have. There was no emergency air on site.

“I regret this lie. I have had a lot of trouble since then. I do not feel safe at work, I do not sleep well. I have lost confidence in those who are tasked with managing my work.”

Linnitt’s message triggered an emailed response from CNRL eight days later, after he had sent two follow-up emails and made several phone calls. At the time, Linnitt was not an employee of CNRL, but a pilot for a helicopter company that CNRL had contracted to operate portions of its oil and gas fields. He had been performing such work as a contractor for CNRL for eight months and reported to a CNRL supervisor.

That helicopter company is no longer operational. 

According to the email chain, CNRL’s human resources staffer said she would find new work for Linnitt, far away from the foreman he had complained about. Linnitt even offered to share evidence supporting his claim that this supervisor threatened to fire him — the conversation he had recorded after filing the falsified paperwork. 

The HR advisor declined to hear it in a July 20, 2016, email, stating: “No, if it is hard to send I don’t really need it. I think I found out enough from talking to (the supervisor) yesterday.”

Reached by phone, the advisor declined to comment on the investigation, referring all requests to the communications department. 

‘They are going to want somebody gone’

The May 2016 audio recording, shared with National Observer and Global News, confirms that Linnitt’s supervisor knew the air packs weren’t on site that day.

“You didn’t have anything there to do your job right,” the foreman can be heard saying to Linnitt on tape, after Linnitt gives his account of the sour gas eruption in Karr Creek.

The supervisor, whose identity is confirmed when he states his own name in the recording, did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment on this story.

While the recording captures the supervisor denying having directly threatened Linnitt, he admits to implying that someone would be fired if Linnitt’s report contained the truth. 

“I don’t know how I said it, but you weren’t being fired,” he said in the May 2016 recording. “I think what I said was — let me think about this for a minute… My point was, they are going to want somebody gone if we have an H2S incident where no one is using the equipment. That was my point.”

On July 21, 2016, one day after CNRL’s human resources staffer turned away the audio clip, she concluded her investigation into Linnitt’s complaint. While the supervisor was found to have violated CNRL’s workplace harassment policy, the company concluded that Linnitt did not falsify his own report.

“As you are aware, failure to truthfully report incidents and include all relevant facts severely undermines workplace safety and could lead to serious injury or death,” wrote the human resources advisor. “Although a number of issues raised by your complaint were corroborated by our investigation, the allegation relating to falsification of a report was not.

“During the investigation it was established that your initial report into the H2S release incident did not include information relating to an absence of required safety equipment (air). You were advised that this type of information is important to the report and should be added and the revised report submitted, but I do not believe you were directed to misrepresent any of the facts.”

The conclusion baffles Linnitt to this day — why would he falsely claim to have made a false claim?

His services were terminated by both CNRL and the helicopter company later that month, after he failed to show up for assignments that would have put him back in the vicinity of the supervisor CNRL said he wouldn’t have to work with.

Matthew Linnitt flies a helicopter over Alberta in June 2016.

Courtesy of Matthew Linnitt

According to provincial regulators in both Alberta and Saskatchewan, falsifying reports — or providing deliberately misleading information — is a serious offence punishable by fees, suspension or cancellation of oil and gas activities, and, if need be, prosecution in the courts. 

In the course of this investigation, four of the former oil and gas workers from both provinces who spoke about their experiences, alleged that the issue of covering up near-misses, accidents and rule-breaking in the oilpatch was widespread, despite the severity of consequences for being caught.

One whistleblower from Wawota, Sask. said he had worked nearly every job on conventional drilling rigs, including floorhand, lead floorhand, motorhand and derrickhand. He estimated that he lied on forms around 20 times between 2006 and 2017 — his last year as an industry contractor — for a variety of offences, ranging in severity from signing off on safety meetings that never happened, to the injury that left him unable to work.

But he and other workers don’t always want to go on the record about what they’ve seen.

Such is the culture of silence in the oil and gas industry, and the fear of losing one’s bread and butter, that only Linnitt agreed to have his name printed in this article. Linnitt’s case is exceptional in that he retained some kind of evidence supporting his story. Once an incident has taken place, it’s hard to go back in hindsight and retrieve incriminating records without raising any red flags within the company. 

For this reason, the whistleblower from Wawota declined to retrieve a report on his own health and safety incident for this investigation. He agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity, in order to avoid alienation in his community and protect family members who still work in the industry.

Lying on paperwork for the benefit of oil and gas companies “is not only a ‘problem’ with certain employers, it is a systemic cancer in the oilfield work culture,” he told the investigation. He said the pressure to falsify often comes “from above” and is almost always verbal, which makes it tough to prove on paper. 

The only paperwork ever filed, he explained, is the paperwork containing the lie.

Speaking from Regina, he told the investigation that in an increasingly competitive industry where labourers are a dime a dozen, everyone knows that “troublemakers” are fired. 

“I think part of the reason is that companies feel that they need to be as competitive financially as possible,” he explained. 

“So if it is for an actual safety concern or a health concern that would adversely affect that bottom line, you have then become a problem on that rig. And so it would not be unreasonable or unexpected if you then would find yourself out of a job.”

He said he doesn’t regret the lies, because they allowed him to keep his job. But he laments that such a workplace culture exists. He is as “confident as confident can be,” he added, that his experience is not unique, based on years of chatter in the “dog house” with co-workers.

“People very, very much wish they didn’t have to do this. The No. 1 reason they do falsify the reports is, I would argue, job security. They feel that their jobs, their livelihood, is at risk if they don’t do the expectation of contractor management, and oil management. 

“Ultimately, it’s felt that the large oil companies and their own contractors care more about operations than about worker safety, and that the worker — the oilfield workers feel that they have to look out for themselves.”

Fear of being ‘blacklisted’

When it comes to energy companies’ disregard for the health and safety of the layman worker, a third source — an Alberta resident who has worked in the industry for more than a decade — largely agreed. 

“Everybody wants you to be safe, nobody really cares if you are safe,” he told the investigation, speaking under condition of anonymity to protect his current job in the field. 

When it comes to health and safety, corner-cutting “happens more than people think,” he explained in an interview from Edmonton. “A lot of it never gets reported, to the media for sure. A lot of it is covered up in-house.”

The Alberta-based whistleblower, who now works in maintenance, said he hasn’t personally falsified a form or seen anyone else do it, but once omitted a crucial fact in a witness report about an incident resulting in egregious injury to avoid being fired for calling out a supervisor by name. 

Looking back, he said he wishes he had named the supervisor in the report at the time, but declined to name him in the interview, because “if I do I’ll probably be blacklisted and never work in the oilsands again.”

An open page from CNRL’s Emergency Response Guide describing procedures for public communication.

Courtesy of Matthew Linnitt

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Despite such testimony, no oil or gas company has never been charged or penalized for filing deliberately misleading paperwork in either Alberta or Saskatchewan.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) — the province’s independent, sole regulator of the energy industry — said to date, its investigations team “has not found the necessary evidence to prove a licensee intentionally provided false information.” On average, the regulator receives between 9,000 and 11,0000 industry notifications per year, for any events outside ordinary operations, including spills, emergencies and individual complaints. 

“Proper reporting is a pillar of Alberta legislation, and when deliberate false reporting is discovered the AER considers higher level compliance responses, such as prosecutions,” wrote Shelley Svetlana, the AER’s public affairs advisor, in emailed comments. “Every investigation considers the potential for false information.”

The AER could not provide an estimate on how many of its investigations have included suspicion of false reporting, nor could Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Energy and Resources. 

Asked if the ministry is confident that the falsification of documents is not an issue in Saskatchewan, it responded with an emailed statement:

“While it is possible that a licensee could file incorrect information, the Ministry does not rely solely on its incident reporting program for compliance purposes. In 2017-18, the Ministry of Energy and Resources conducted over 20,000 inspections of wells, facilities and pipelines to identify potential issues including unreported or under-reported spills, which includes follow-up inspections following clean-up activities.”

READ MORE: Multi-billion dollar pricetag to clean up oilpatch ‘not an emergency’: Alberta

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canada’s most powerful oil and gas lobby group, declined to comment on this investigation.

“In our view, these examples do not appear to be specific to a majority or even a minority contingent of our membership or our industry,” wrote spokesperson Killeen Kelly. 

But Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said it’s clear there are “really good performers” and “really bad performers” in the industry — an industry that has, “frankly fallen victim to what I would describe as a lax culture of workplace safety…”

The federation is an umbrella group for most of the province’s unions, including some workers in the oil and gas industry, primarily in the downstream sector, which mainly encompasses the refining and transport of crude. The upstream sector, which focuses on extraction, has a low rate of unionization, McGowan explained. 

“I’ve looked at the documents,” he said, referring to Linnitt’s sour gas encounter in 2016. “I have to admit, while I’m saddened by the stories that are contained in those documents, I’m not at all surprised. 

“There is a long-standing history of suppression of workplace health and safety claims. There is a tradition in Alberta of putting health and safety concerns on the back burner.”

Under Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Oil and Gas Conservation Rules, and the AER’s reporting guidelines, Linnitt’s run-in with sour gas in Karr Creek qualified as a “spill containing H2S” that should have been reported.

“An operator must contact the AER to report any H2S release and take immediate action to determine the source and stop further release,” wrote Svetlana.

The incident does not, however, appear in the AER’s database, indicating that CNRL never notified the regulator of the toxic geyser of gas and fluids that sent Linnitt running into the bush that day. 

Linnitt said he called the AER in the weeks that followed the May 2, 2016, incident and made contact with a woman who promised to return his call after determining how to proceed with his complaint. He never heard back from her, and the AER said it has no complaint record for the Karr Creek location on Linnitt’s incident report during that time frame.

Asked if it would launch an investigation into the CNRL incident as a result of this article, Svetanova responded: 

“The AER takes these kinds of non-compliances seriously. We strongly recommend that your source report his concerns through our 24-hour emergency call centre at 1-800-222-6514 so we can follow-up on the specific situation cited above. 

“… If we determine that a company failed to report an incident as required, this would be considered a noncompliance and the AER would follow-up. An investigation would likely be opened if there was suspicion that the company deliberately failed to report.”

— With files from Carolyn Jarvis and Mike De Souza

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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