Canadian Safety Reporter
Dec 3, 2018

New trial ordered after Alberta oil drilling rig fatality and conviction

Company was convicted on two safety violations, but Court of Appeal agreed proof was needed that company didn’t take all reasonable steps to protect deceased worker
By Jeffrey R. Smith

An Alberta company convicted of two safety violations following a fatal accident on an oil drilling rig is getting a new trial after the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled the accident itself wasn’t enough to prove the violations.

Precision Diversified Oilfield Services Corp. is an oilfield services company based in Calgary. In 2010, Precision employed Frazier Peterson as a floorhand — a position whose job duties included handling pipes, casing, and drilling equipment on the drill floor of oil drilling rigs. Peterson also operated semi-automated pipe-handling machines as well as making and breaking rotary connections.

On Dec. 12, 2010, Peterson was working on a drilling rig that had reached its target depth. The drilling crew began to remove the drillstring — an assembly hanging from the top of the drilling rig that contains the drill bit mechanism and drill pipe — from the well and disconnecting sections of the drill pipe as it came up. Peterson was on the drill floor with other floorhands disconnecting the drill pipe from the drillstring. The driller used a brake to hold the drillstring in place while turning the rotary table — a section of the drill floor that spins the drillstring.

The process of turning the rotary table while holding the drillstring in place creates torque, so it was standard procedure for the driller to “feather” the table brake to gradually release built-up torque. There was no visual way for floorhands to know how much torque was built up in drillstring.

The driller lifted the drillstring, but there was built-up torque that hadn’t been released. This caused some of the equipment to spin rapidly and strike Peterson in the head. Peterson sustained fatal trauma, including fractures, to his head in the accident.

Company charged and convicted

Precision was charged with two offences under the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act — violating its “general duty” to ensure the health and safety of an employee, and failing to adopt engineering or administrative controls designed to mitigate workplace hazards as required under the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Code 2009.

The charges stemmed from the belief that the driller failed to release trapped torque in the rotary table, which caused the equipment to spin and strike Peterson. The Crown took the approach that the accident itself was proof Precision breached the act and code and exposed Peterson to a harmful situation by not adopting controls to mitigate the hazard. It also argued the incident was foreseeable and Precision didn’t take all reasonable steps to protect Peterson and other workers.

The Alberta Provincial Court found Precision could have adopted an alternative administrative control that would have “significantly reduced the risk to the deceased.” While this may not have been as good as the engineering control referred to in the code, it would have been more effective than the “ill-advised” procedures Precision used on the oil drilling rig, said the court.

The court also found that Precision didn’t exercise a reasonable standard of care by putting an interlock on the rig to guard against spinning equipment. It ruled Precision was guilty of both counts in a summary conviction.

Precision appealed the decision, claiming the trial court erred in finding that the spinning equipment was caused by trapped table torque, its administrative controls on the rig were inadequate, and the standard of care required the company to install an interlock on the rig.

The summary conviction appeal court found there wasn’t a “strict rule of law” that simple proof of a workplace accident would be enough to prove a breach, and in certain situations more evidence was required. While Peterson was clearly an employee of Precision and the drilling rig held potential danger to workers, it hadn’t been proven that Precision had committed a “wrongful act” contributing to Peterson’s injuries. The summary conviction appeal court ordered a new trial on both charges.

The Crown appealed this decision to the Alberta Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal noted that employers had a general duty under the act to ensure the safety of their workers “as far as it is reasonably practicable” and the first charge was based on this duty. In order for Precision to be found guilty of this charge, the Crown had to prove the company had done all it reasonably could have to address the unsafe condition on the drilling rig, said the court.

The appeal court also noted that the code had more specific duties regarding training, supervision, and administration that were subject to the act’s jurisdiction and failure to comply with these duties were strict liability offences that also had to be proven by the Crown. In addition, the second charge against Precision was for non-compliance with the code’s requirement to “eliminate or control a hazard through the use of engineering controls,” but the code is under the umbrella of the act so the “reasonably practicable” element was in play.

The Court of Appeal determined that neither charge against Precision was particular enough to indicate how the company had failed to comply with the act and the code. It agreed with the summary conviction appeal court that more analysis and evidence were necessary to evaluate whether Precision had done all that had been reasonably practicable to avoid the incident that killed Peterson.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the Crown’s appeal and upheld the order for a new trial on whether Precision had done all that it reasonably could have done to avoid the fatality on the drilling rig and it had reasonable procedures to ensure worker safety.

“This appeal raised an important legal issue as to the Crown’s obligation to prove the actus reus under (the act),” said the Court of Appeal. “The appeal judge recognized that the Crown was required to prove something more than the accident or incident in order to convict Precision.”

For more information see:

• R. v. Precision Diversified Oilfield Services Corp., 2018 CarswellAlta 1670 (Alta. C.A.).
© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, HAB Press. All rights reserved.