It’s almost balmy at Suncor’s Fort Hills oil sands operation north of Fort McMurray, Alta, and the long-range forecast is looking comfortable for the next little while. However, in mid-February, the site, like other parts of Canada, was plunged into a polar vortex with temperatures falling as low as -45 degrees Celsius, without the wind chill. 

“In previous winters, we’ve actually had grease freeze—it was Arctic winter grease that froze and turned into a frozen chewing gum-like consistency,” says Alan Scott, director of mine and tailings at Fort Hills. “So, we do a lot of preparation to get ready for winter.”

When the mercury drops that low, the work to prepare people, equipment and facilities picks up. The Fort Hills winterization plan kicks off in early fall, before the cold hits, to ensure everything from the giant heavy haulers to the smallest of generators are in peak condition. 

“It’s all about winter preparedness,” explains Alan. “We do a lot to maintain and prepare our equipment and facilities for winter. This includes making sure the right fuel additives are available, that tires are in good shape, thorough inspections of equipment are done and that machines have sufficient and the right lubrication to withstand the cold temperatures.” 

Of course, ensuring the equipment can handle the deep freeze is one thing, but preparing the people who work with the facilities and equipment is another.

“We focus on the safety and wellbeing of our people in the winter. Frostbite and exposure are critical to manage,” says Alan. “You see people wearing beanies and balaclavas, we have Arctic-rated parkas and ice cleats for boots, but we also rely on the buddy system. When you’re working you may not realize that you’re at risk for frostbite, but your partner will see that your skin is getting red. That’s when it’s important to get yourself warmed up.”

When in the field on those bitter cold days, workers are reminded to take frequent breaks and reduce the amount of time they’re working outside. Sites also make sure workers are never far from a heat source like a warming truck, which is literally a warm truck nearby, or a mobile office. 

Screenshot of weather application with temperature reading minus 45 Celsius
During a recent cold snap in Alberta, temperatures reached Arctic-like lows, including at the historic Bitumont site near the Fort Hills operation.

Slow and steady wins the race

It’s also understood that tasks typically take longer in the cold. Between walking like a penguin on ice, equipment moving slower, focusing on only the most critical work to keep operations running, and the reduced time people can be outside, work can take twice as long. 

“You have to appreciate that at -50, even steel takes on undue stress,” explains Alan. “The key is to move slowly, steadily, and methodically because any equipment failure or process breakdown will cause significant challenges.”

Despite the extreme cold, Alan says there’s never been a point when work had to stop, “We have a resourceful team that finds ways to get it done safely. We have great support up here with our Environment, Health and Safety teams, logistic support, medical centres, and great guidance on how to look after yourself in all temperatures, and if ever needed, we have outstanding emergency response teams who are always looking out for us.”

So, the next time you adjust the thermostat, take comfort in knowing that no matter how cold it gets, there are thousands of people working around the clock at Suncor sites to make sure you have heat in your home.