Old Man Winter can make it extremely difficult to work outdoors for not only the workers but also equipment.

On Jan. 29, production at Syncrude Canada was suspended following several instrument freeze-ups as a result of extremely cold weather conditions. Temperatures during the unusually cold snap dipped to around -54.4 Fahrenheit with the wind chill. Most units affected by the freeze-ups had returned to operations by Feb. 5, with crude oil production resuming to about 180,000 barrels a day, a little more than half its capacity. Syncrude was working on bringing the remaining units back up.

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  • Siren Fisekci, director of investor relations for Canadian Oil Sands Trust, acknowledges while the bitterly cold weather can "lead to some operational issues," she was unable to give specifics on this case because the "root cause" remains under investigation.

    Canadian Oils Sands Trust is the major partner in the Syncrude consortium.

    "They've been operating up there for 30 years, so I'm pretty sure they are prepared for cold weather," says Fisekci. "So until we're through this, and we can complete that investigation, we can't say much."

    Fisecki admits she can't recall such a weather-related production suspension occurring in her six years with the company. "Not in that time has there been a complete shutdown. The focus really is just on restarting it, and getting back up to full rates."

    During a recent 2007 fourth quarter update of its Horizon project, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., cited unusually frigid temperatures in January and February for construction slowdowns at the site. Those slowdowns helped elevate project costs $1.7 to $1.9 billion, or 25 to 28 per cent over the original $6.8 billion budget.

    PCL Constructors Inc. which has workers on the Horizon site, was affected for about two weeks during the cold snap. "We worked some personnel in areas where the cold did not affect us each day, and varying numbers of personnel were sent home on different days," recalls Ian Johnston, PCL's senior vice president of heavy industrial. When the mercury dips to -13 F, the company evaluates which work should stop. By -31 F, most outdoor work will be stopped.

    When that happens, workers sent back to camp are not paid. Some work continues in areas sheltered from the weather so it's not a complete shutdown.

    "We would typically lose about one week per year due to cold weather in Alberta," Johnson says. Lost days are not considered force majeure because they are not unusual, and some delay should be expected.

    "All jobs have weather-related delays," notes Johnston. "We consider that we lose less days in a year for cold weather than are lost on other projects in different geographical areas due to rain. All project schedules should be prepared with an allowance for weather delays."

    Getting back on track with priorities when work resumes doesn't always occur, says Johnston. "We continually evaluate the priority of our work, particularly the critical path work. On critical activities we may not get back to our original schedule."

    To keep workers safe, companies follow the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety guidelines. Those regulations outline the maximum work periods in cold weather, taking wind speeds into account (from about five to almost 20 mph, and the number of warm-up breaks which increase the lower the temperature goes. The guidelines change for every two degree drop in temperature. The temperatures go from -14.8 F to -45.4 F, and below. For example, at -14.8 F to -18.4 F with no noticeable wind up to five mph (when a light flag will move), it's a normal work shift (four-hours) and break period. But, on the other end of the scale, if the wind picks up to 20 mph, which results in blowing and drifting snow, the maximum work period is reduced to 40 minutes with four warm-up breaks. With this wind speed, work is stopped at -25.6 F to -29.2 F. With no wind, it stops at -45.4 F. Workers are also encouraged to be vigilant in keeping an eye on co-workers, looking for signs of frostbite and hypothermia.