It’s a warning that Tony Bennett, OPG’s Director of Dam and Public Safety, has been driving home since 2002, when he took up the position. In the last 15 years, he has noticed a marked improvement in the public’s awareness of the life-threatening dangers.
On average each year, about 470 Canadians drown to death. Of those, six or seven die near dams. In the last two years, however, that number has been limited to one fatality each year, Bennett said. In Ontario, no fatalities have been recorded as a result of OPG’s hydroelectric operations in the past 15 years.
Bennett thinks this could be an indication the efforts to educate the public are working.
“We’ve made real inroads to improving public perception of the hazards associated with hydropower and dams and their operation,” Bennett said.
OPG's work has included conducting a study with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on public perception of the dangers of swimming and boating near dams, as well as taking a deeper look at the risk takers who actively ignore the warning signs and trespass willfully.
“What we found is that if you put up an effective sign, 97 per cent of people will respect it and keep out,” Bennett said. “But if you have an ineffective sign, it doesn’t matter what words are on it, people are going to walk by it. That’s why we have spent so much time researching to make sure our signs worked.”
Today, OPG has large, clear and bold signs around its 240 dams warning against trespassing. Fences around the dams and safety booms in the water also help keep swimmers and boaters at bay.
OPG also runs a “Stay Clear, Stay Safe” province-wide public awareness campaign aimed at educating boaters, swimmers and snowmobilers. Its key message is that water that may look calm and safe can change in an instant.
Bennett and his group have also been instrumental in creating industry standards for safer dam operating procedures as well as guidelines for educating the public. This document has been shared widely outside the company and has been adopted by the Canadian Dam Association.
This thorough approach to public safety has informed all of OPG’s new hydroelectric builds as well, like the Peter Sutherland Sr. Generating Station in northeast Ontario that went into service in 2017. OPG worked with the nearby Little Abitibi Provincial Park to ensure canoeists on the New Post Creek were informed of the new hydroelectric station, which uses a portion of the creek for its operation.
“We made sure we have the right control measures in place and the project staff worked with the park authorities to ensure we had the right public notifications for canoeists going downstream,” Bennett said.