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A Real Emergency

Published: 01st Mar 2012

Working in the offshore oil and gas industry for a very long time (more than 30 years) and meeting and working with people from different countries was a privilege. In the last offshore company that I worked with I was assigned to both the HSE (Health, Safety and Environment) group as well as to the Marine department, which encompasses rig moves, diving work hire and supervision of marine vessels and barges in addition to the oil spill combating activities.

This assignment proved to be very important as it gave me the insight to realise and appreciate the marine element of rescue and evacuation during a major emergency.

To the oil and gas industry, the last 30 years had many changes that affected the quality and interest with which the HSE issues were managed. Unfortunately, more often than not, these changes were a reaction to major accidents, such as the Exxon Valdez, Ocean Ranger and the Piper Alpha.

In the past, audits were irregular by government inspectors. Later on came the regular inspections conducted by shareholders, insurance companies and somehow better informed government officers who did not necessarily know very much about our industry.

With time, monitoring began to include tools like the ‘Safety Case’, introduced after the Piper Alpha disaster, COMAH, and, finally, HSE Management Systems came into place.

Without doubt, training is one of the most important elements of HSE management systems. In the oil and gas industry, we faced many difficulties implementing effective training programmes, especially in the Middle East. The hurdles where:

• Less expensive semi-skilled workforces were brought in untrained and unaware of the hazards they may face at worksite

• Training budgets were small and the first to face severe cuts when business was not doing well

• Once trained, the workforce become highly in demand in the job market and seek better paying jobs elsewhere

• Most of the training programmes where conducted mainly in English. Language proficiency is highly variable here and it added to the difficulty Despite the obvious benefits of training, the above difficulties made it harder for senior management to approve reasonable budgets, as the certainty about whether training could actually improve the employees’ response during a real emergency became questionable. The skepticism surrounding training results were so rampant that during a budget approval meeting it was quite common to hear comments like “Anyway, if something happens they will just run away,” or “Do you really believe that during an emergency anyone would remember their training, or even listen?” Hence, partial training budget approvals became the norm.

But we managed

As a huge believer in training, the limited budgets caused us to be innovative, and to create new methods. I had to ensure that the training would succeed by paying off at time of an actual emergency. specific needs. We also decided that critical training such as H2S (hydrogen sulphide) awareness and emergency drills should not be outsourced, and would be better delivered by our own company instructors. Selected employees were trained and then sent as observers to attend drills performed at other companies.

We performed regular drills with close monitoring and took a lot of notes and made many corrections. Identified mistakes, gaps and difficulties were discussed with supervisors and mid management. The solutions we came up with were implemented in the next drills. Lessons from failures and success stories of major accidents around the world were also considered and corrective actions were implemented into our drills. On occasions, outsiders were invited to observe and comment. This invitation was also extended to management and senior management. From the very start, we emphasised the importance of the drills, never neglecting any of the details that some might consider trivial.

Some of the action we took

It’s possible that some of the following points could serve as a checklist for managers seeking to establish a safety culture of excellence. Certainly the actions described below proved themselves to be life-saving initiatives in the context of my own experience.

• We insisted on proper head counting and ensured that alarms were audible in all rooms, showers, and high-noise areas, even when the entertainment system was on

• Additionally, a Cascade Breathing Air System was installed to provide the total personnel on board with at least 45 minutes - that is in addition to what they have in their BA sets

• Once the alarms are triggered, the response is also organised. We decided on an evacuation sequence/hierarchy for all personnel to follow, first by evacuating the injured and visitors, then by moving up with the hierarchy, e.g. the lower your position the earlier you may evacuate with the field manager being the last person in the case of a total evacuation

• We designated ‘critical’ personnel - those who were required to control the emergency until the decision to abandon is taken - and the ‘non-critical’ personnel, who were supposed to evacuate as early as possible

• All personnel practised different emergency scenarios with actual transfer of ‘simulated casualties’ - this adding a real-life authenticity to drills. We noted the time at which the first and last men reached the assembly point; any causes for delays were identified and solved during drills. We compared the time taken to evacuate using different methods: life-boats, crane and personnel basket to stand-by vessels, and even the use of scramble nets

• We made sure that all offshore personnel attended at least two drills per year and all visitors at least once per year; for that we kept strict records, and from these attendance records we discovered that some of the offshore personnel, by mere chance, had never attended a drill in more than 18 months, so this issue was rectified

• We included office and logistics base in our drills. We also involved and trained the stand-by boats and supply vessel crews, providing them with H2S detectors and an adequate number of BA sets, and of course we gave them training in the use of these, as well

• We discovered that our common four-person personnel basket was not adequate. It was replaced with an eight-person, and later a 12-person personnel basket. This later proved to be a very wise decision

• All the above actions were taken as a direct result of careful and clever monitoring and auditing of our emergency drills

The emergency - what actually happened?

Our true story occurred on a sunny winter day about a decade or so ago. I was having a chat in the mess hall with a crane operator when suddenly everything started shaking. At first I thought the man I was having the chat with was kicking the table, but soon the noise grew to turbulence akin to the inside of a jet engine turbine. We all ran out, and saw flames rising 30 metres above the flare and felt the heat was intense even from more than 100 metres away. Later, crude oil spilled out from the flare tip, igniting the sea surface as it floated.

Just to spell out to you clearly just how incredibly dangerous that was, let me tell you that our crude contains more than 6% H2S! That is right - about 60,000 ppm, which is both flammable and toxically fatal. There was a very short time of confusion (quite normal when people are caught by surprise), since at that time we didn’t know the cause of what was happening.

This very short frustration was soon replaced by a high proficiency of the staff, practicing everything they had been trained for in the previous 18 months. Everyone began to head to the life boat stations armed with their breathing apparatus, and awaited instruction. Orders to evacuate the non-critical were given and from there the evacuation went smoothly. Two of the operators requested to be evacuated ahead of the queue: “I have a kid and my wife is pregnant,” one said.

They both had to comply with what had been rehearsed in the drills, especially when they realised they were being observed by their colleagues, who waited for their planned turns, as had been routinely practiced. The stand-by boats responded quickly and all personnel - except those critical for emergency control - were evacuated. As previously planned, they went cross and then up wind to a safe mooring point. “What are you waiting for? Why are you not shutting down?”

I asked a senior operator in the control room. “You are not my manager,” he answered. A quick instruction from the operational supervisor ended the argument quickly. The emergency was controlled, and the evacuees returned safely. The whole evacuation of approximately 100 persons took less than ten minutes from the time evacuation instructions were given.

Other safety measures - PPE

Serious thought needs to be given to relevant and suitable protective measures and safe systems of work in these environments. While I’ve already mentioned the importance of BA, drowning is an obvious danger for an offshore worker, for which suitable lifejackets should be worn by those working over the side, along with harnesses and fall arrest equipment.

Drilling operations also involve hazards such as high noise levels, dangerous chemicals for which suitable personal protective equipment must be sourced and purchased, including chemical proof gloves and ear defenders. There are few active roles that do not involve some kind of PPE, from specialist gloves and anti-static footwear, through to flame retardant and high visibility workwear, as well as eye protection and a high specification protective helmet. Thousands of the offshore oil rig jobs are physical in nature, and pivotal to prolonging your employees’ long term survival in such a hazardous environment is ensuring they keep their heads - quite literally.

It’s important to protect their heads by insisting on the wearing of a hard hat at all times.? While legislation pertaining to hardhat standards varies around the world, ANSI Z89.1-1986 separates protective helmets into different types and classes. The standard identifies Type 1 and Type 2 helmets. Type 1 helmets incorporate a full brim (the brim fully encircles the dome of the hat); Type 2 helmets have no encircling brim, but may include a short bill on the front (similar to a baseball cap). In terms of performance, ANSI Z89.1-1986 recognises three classes:

• Class A Helmets are intended to reduce the force of impact of falling objects and to reduce the danger of contact with exposed low-voltage electrical conductors. For certification, sample shells are proof-tested at 2,200 volts of electrical charge

• Class B Helmets are intended to reduce the force of impact of falling objects and to reduce the danger of contact with exposed high-voltage electrical conductors. Sample shells are proof-tested at 20,000 volts

• Class C Helmets are intended to reduce the force of impact of falling objects, but offer no electrical protection Note: The voltages stated in Classes A and B are not intended to be an indication of the voltage at which the headgear protects the wearer. In addition to electrical protection, hard hats are also tested for impact and penetration resistance from blows to the top of the head, flammability resistance, and water absorption. The rigorous testing requirements are described in detail within the standard. Every hard hat conforming to the requirements of ANSI Z89.1-1986 must be appropriately marked to verify its compliance. The following information must be marked inside the hat: • The manufacturer's name

• The legend, ‘ANSI Z89.1-1986’

• The class designation (A, B or C) One common misconception is that hard hats have a predetermined service life, but both the 1986 and 1997 ANSI standards address service life under maintenance and care of the hard hat - so make sure your workers are taking care of theirs, replace the suspension every 12 months and the hard hat itself after 5 years of use. These are just guidelines, as any hard hat that fails the visual inspection should be removed from service until the problem is corrected.


Although two minor incidents or so occurred on my rig on that sunny winter day, described earlier, thankfully, neither of these involved head injuries. When we encountered a genuinely life-threatening situation it was managed effectively, and lives were actively saved, by a wide range of safety measures.

A complete absence of fatalities on that day is proof that training can truly pay off. With proper, pre-planned instructions, trained personnel can be prepared for different scenarios and cooperate, keeping the degree of confusion to a minimum - and never permitting minor confusion to rise to the degree of panic.

Now compare this to what had happened at Piper Alpha: 167 people lost their lives and at least 85 of the deceased did not take or attempt any action, but waited in the galley with their boss, a direct result of having never been given any instruction or training on how to evacuate.

The incident I described was real. The site, date, and company as well as the initial cause of the accident are kept confidential, as they do not add any value to the subject of this article.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues mentioned above, please contact the author, Ahmes Hanna.

Published: 01st Mar 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East

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