Edmonton

Suncor to use rapid COVID-19 tests on workforce mobilizing for its planned site maintenance

Canadian energy giant Suncor will focus its COVID-19 rapid-testing efforts on hundreds of fly-in, fly-out workers that will be conducting planned maintenance in northern Alberta over the coming spring and summer.

'Mobilization of these folks ... includes people movements between regions'

Suncor's oilsands Base Plant in Fort McMurray, Alta. The company is currently rapid-testing employees for COVID-19 at the Fort McMurray facility. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Canadian energy giant Suncor will focus its COVID-19 rapid-testing efforts on hundreds of fly-in, fly-out workers that will be conducting planned maintenance in northern Alberta over the coming spring and summer.

The company, which is getting an additional 100,000 testing kits from the Alberta government, is prioritizing turnaround employees since they present an increased risk for bringing the novel coronavirus into the sites, said Sylvie Tran, Suncor's vice-president of environment, health and safety.

"Turnaround involves shutting down parts of the operation in order to conduct maintenance work and it also involves bringing in a lot more people than your base contingent of workers," Tran told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM this week. 

"In the mobilization of these folks, it includes people movements between regions. So it makes sense for us to focus there first." 

Last week, the Alberta government announced it would ship nearly one million rapid COVID-19 tests to be used in hospitals, schools, long-term care facilities and private companies including Suncor, Syncrude, CNRL and WestJet.

Suncor will use its allotment at the Base Plant operation in Fort McMurray. 

Base Plant turnaround — a scheduled event where the plant's production is suspended or slowed to allow crews to perform necessary maintenance —  is expected to involve about 2,400 tradespeople, according to the Suncor website.

It officially starts in May but pre-work gets underway in March, the website said.

Practice makes perfect

But Suncor has been perfecting its use of the rapid antigen tests since January when it received 7,000 as part of a pilot project conducted through the University of Toronto's Creative Destruction Labs (CDL). 

Tran said the pilot project, which involved a consortium of 12 companies including  Air Canada, Rogers and Loblaws, was a huge boost in the company's learning curve.

"What we've learned is really all about the logistics," she said about the pilot, which Suncor conducted at Base Plant, its facility in Sarnia, Ont., and in Fort McKay, the First Nation and Métis community 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

"How do you set this up? What is the process, the procedure, the bottlenecks? And so we've developed — with the consortium, with the Creative Destruction Lab — quite the playbook in terms of how to set this up properly and how [to]  efficiently get people through from start to finish." 

The antigen tests, which take about 15 minutes to deliver results, are a screening tool, not an actual COVID-19 test, she said. If an employee tests positive with the rapid test, they will be isolated and then take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm if they have COVID-19 or not.

Tran said the company's goal has been to perform a test twice a week per person. 

"We are running about 300 (tests) a week right now," she said.

Of the tests conducted by Suncor so far, Tran said there have been only three positive screens. 

Only one was confirmed by the PCR test as COVID-19 infection. 

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