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Engineering: The Stealth Profession

by Dr. Franklin Foster, 2007
[note: this article made possible by support and funding from the Petroleum Society of CIM, Lloydminster Section]
[All photos courtesy of PFM Engineering]

Engineering could be called the “stealth profession” since, even though various professional engineers play important roles in the heavy oil industry, engineers are not the first, or even the second, people one thinks of when associating people with the heavy oil industry.  What then do engineers do?

Engineers apply mathematics and science to address a wide variety of problems.  One of the foremost problems is safety.  How do we keep heavy oil industry workers safe, and how do we also protect the public and the environment?

Worker safety makes sense for everyone.  Workers want a safe workplace so they can enjoy the other dimensions of their lives. Engineers have a responsibility to ensure the safety of everything from the machines with which they work to the buildings in which they work.  Safe workers are also good for business – they have higher productivity and companies avoid costs of downtime or high insurance rates.  While it is impossible, even for engineers, to design something that is absolutely safe, engineers do endeavor to keep safety risks to a minimum.  To this end there are various safety and design standards that engineers have to ensure are being complied with.  Some of these are legislated by either federal or provincial levels, some are engineering society codes, or other codes developed to apply to particular industries, some are company specific rules and procedures and some are just common sense.  The petroleum industry has worked cooperatively to provide guiding principles for worker safety and safety training is an important aspect of the industry, something reflected by the large number of companies and institutions which offer safety training courses.

The manlift being hoisted (right) has side walls, floor
strength, and stability, all designed for worker safety.

While safety is of primary importance, companies must also operate profitably to ensure they  remain in business, continue to provide jobs for the employees, and produce the petroleum products which do so much to provide our modern way of life.  Engineers play a role her as well.  They must make sure machinery is designed to operate effectively and efficiently, keeping maintenance costs down and facilitating the business objectives for which it was designed.  All these, from initial design, to safety and maintenance considerations, and accident investigation, involve professional engineers.

     Below is a sulphur pour tower. The main column was designed in three sections so that it could be built in phases to reduce costs, so that it could be transported, and so that it could grow with the sulphur pile. The design followed a CSA standard for limit states, required climatic data from the Alberta Building Code, and material properties for steel structures. Also, the design specifications of the oil company had to be followed.


      Due to their severe working environments, CAODC requires that drilling rigs, service rigs and flushbys undergo regular maintenance and inspection. There are four levels of inspection, and a Professional Engineer is required when the rig undergoes a Level IV inspection.

In building construction, all the way from foundations to roofs.  The professional engineer is involved.







    In short, engineers may be invisible upon first look, but once you know what goes on behind the scenes, you come to understand that professional engineers have many important roles in the Heavy Oil Industry.