HSE Integrated Ltd. looks beyond oil patch for growth

The safety boutique turns to power utilities and heavy industry amid economic slump

January 01, 2011

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Manzoni Nunns Ruste McMaster Roberts Wuori

Photography by Jason Stang

Glenn Roberts couldn’t shake off the lure of the oilfield. As a fresh University of Alberta graduate, the mechanical engineer went to work for Dow Chemical Canada. By all rights, it was a good job. “I was a process production engineer, right in the thick of it,” he recalls. But within a year, opportunity called, and the Edmonton native took a job as a field engineer with a drill-bit company. “I guess I took the bait,” he laughs.

He went on to fill senior positions with Integrated Production Services and Smith International Canada before landing at Calgary-based Health Safety Environment Integrated Ltd. (HSE) in 2005. At 54, the chief operating officer has lost none of his original enthusiasm for the sector. “It truly is a lot of fun. We do some really, really good stuff, things that you can believe in,” he says.

Safety is big business. HSE leads a growing niche in Canada’s $65-billion oilfield service and supply sector. Roberts oversees a national operation with assets topping $50 million that reaches from northeastern British Columbia to Goose Bay, Labrador. The payroll boasts 650 employees spread across 21 service bases.

Services offered by the firm run the gamut from first aid and emergency response at remote work sites to industrial health, firefighting and mobile air quality monitoring. The firm’s stock in trade “touches all of our lives in just about every area,” Roberts says. He pulls no punches when describing the company’s ambitions. “We want to be the best provider of safety service in the world.”

To strive for the goal, HSE has moved aggressively under Roberts’ watch to diversify from strictly an oil and gas service provider to a company that has its fingers in several industrial pies. Beyond remote oil and gas drilling locations, HSE equipment now graces mining, utility and manufacturing sites, as well as forestry, power plant and oil sands operations.

The emphasis on diversification paid dividends when the global economic and energy-price contraction hit in 2008-09. In 2009, year-over-year revenues from HSE’s oilfield business slid by 47 per cent to $27 million. The drop in revenue from other industrial clients was only 13 per cent.

Reducing the firm’s exposure to the feast-or-famine oil and gas sector has been critical to its continued growth. “In all honesty, I don’t believe HSE would be here today without that strategy having been implemented,” Roberts says.

Oil and gas remains a crucial ingredient to HSE’s success. The rising tide of drilling rig activity in Western Canada promises to lift all boats, including safety and environmental specialists. Although late-2009 predictions saw activity staying flat at around 8,500 wells, projected totals for 2011 have shot up to about 11,800, according to the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors.

The projections for renewed oilfield activity are in part driven by a switch to new drilling targets. Horizontal multi-stage fracturing techniques behind the shale gas booms in northeastern B.C. and the eastern United States are rapidly being applied to legacy oilfields in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin. The application of new technology that uses potent and sometimes corrosive chemicals to blast open dense layers of rock, which in turn yield stores of so-called “tight” oil, spells opportunity for HSE. “The transition to some of these more complex wells and complex fraccing programs opens the door for us as a safety company to provide protection for the workers,” Roberts says.

HSE’s client roster includes industry titans like Husky Energy Inc., Apache Canada Ltd. and Devon Canada Corp. The environmental and safety boutique also works with Suncor Energy Inc. Roberts’ outfit can deploy medical personnel to oversee high-hazard plant turnarounds, set up semi-permanent on-site first aid rooms and clinics, perform drug and alcohol screening for employees, and backstop municipal or regional health authorities in the event of large-scale disasters.

Snuffing out potential fires is only the tip of HSE’s expertise. A northern medical clinic provides services to a giant PTI Group work camp and nearby heavy oil facilities. Workers who frequent the clinic can access physiotherapy, massage therapy, paramedics, in addition to benefiting from the protection of an on-call fire service.

Elsewhere, HSE air-monitoring equipment can be deployed to diffuse potentially bitter disputes between landowners and adjacent industry operations by uploading by-the-minute data via satellite to a household computer. “It can get pretty technical,” Roberts says.

More straightforward is an industry-wide focus on safety best practices and protocols in the wake of tragedies like last year’s Deepwater Horizon blowout that killed 11 rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico.

Roberts does not rely on disaster for profit. Specialists like HSE live on a combination of constant improvement, integrity and a corporate culture that draws on “expertise for the safe and cost-effective protection of workers, assets and the community,” according to a statement of core values. Or, as Roberts puts it: “We train, we do it every day, and we’re very good at it.”

The dogged commitment to worker safety showed at an Irving Oil operation in New Brunswick. “A fellow went down with a heart attack and was basically dead at the time that our medics got to him,” Roberts recalls. “They were able to revive him. He’s living.” The story is remarkable, but for Roberts and HSE, the incident was also just another day on the job. “We’re making a difference in people’s lives and to me that’s really special.”

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