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My work as an offshore safety advisor in the oil and gas industry is highly varied and benefits from over 40 years of experience. I have noticed many changes and improvements as well as a few issues that have persisted and continue to be, in my opinion, a concern.
Among these has been improvement to the design, manufacture and availability of access to equipment has been responsible for a reduction in the number of workplace incidents. The mandatory introduction of hard hats on sites along with the introduction of gloves and safety glasses has, no doubt, seen a significant improvement in our safety performance. As has the perseverance and education by foremen, site supervisors, managers and health and safety professionals in constantly reminding the workforce to remain vigilant. The use of robust site inductions, training and posters has also contributed.
Have we convinced all the workforce of our argument? I would like to think so. But it will always be an area where we cannot become complacent; think of it as a journey of continuous improvement.
Because issues, of course, do remain. Comments we sometimes hear when an incident happens include: “It must have been the fault of the individual,” and that “No one would tell an employee to work in such a way.”
From my experience, rather than instructing an employee to behave this way, perhaps the problem was that there had been a lack of planning in the first place.
Repeatedly, we are presented with copies of generic risk assessments and method statements that list ‘either/or’ options for work at height equipment, with phrases such as ‘appropriate access equipment’ or ‘a ladder, podium or an alternative platform be used’.
Since the introduction in the UK of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, the right to refuse to work unsafely has been enshrined in law. Over the past few years, behavioural safety programmes have encouraged us to take responsibility for our actions and those of our colleagues. So, why do some workers still refuse to work like this? What motivates them to put their life and limbs in jeopardy by not doing so?
As a health and safety advisor offshore, although things are improving in the UK North Sea, we must always be vigilant. There are some key areas we should focus on, looking at the key risk areas, including:
The platform piping and instrumentation diagram (P&ID) shows all piping, including the “physical sequence of branches, reducers, valves, equipment, instrumentation and control interlocks”. A P&ID is used to operate the process system, since it shows the piping of the process flow along with the installed equipment and instrumentation.
The following is an example of an offshore incident which involved inexperienced personnel and failure to follow procedure which could have led to a major incident.
Summary of incident
The platform suffered a process trip and the riser valve closed automatically. The high-pressure gas compressor was put into full recycle and wells were shut in to maintain minimum flow and flare.
Later, the discharge pressure was observed to start falling. It fell to 33 bar and an increase in the flare rate was observed during the period that the discharge pressure was falling.
A field technician identified and reported that a platform safety valve was leaking.
A working meeting was held in the Platform Control Room to discuss and agree the course of action to be taken and a decision was made to close the platform safety valve down line.
The pressure of the HP compressor started to increase after the valve was closed and the flare rate was observed to decrease. Later, when the discharge pressure reached 88 bar, the field technician heard a “pop” and investigated and observed that valve 44HV131 had suffered a leak to atmosphere.
Gas was detected by a single gas detector. The weather at the time of the release was: wind blowing 36kts gusting to 60kts blowing gas from the leak away from the platform.
From witness interviews
The decision to close block valve 44HV131 was made quickly, after consultation between the area technician, the two control room operators (CROs) and the senior shift supervisor (SSP). The four individuals referred to the appropriate P&ID before making the decision to close the valve. They were aware that the compressor and discharge pipework were protected by two platform safety valves (PSVs).
The change in piping spec was never considered as an issue. There was a belief that the block valve 44HV131 was to the same spec as the upstream pipework. The responsibility to manage the locked valves, associated keys and the authority to change the status of “locked valves” is considered to lie with SSP and CROs.
There had been a problem with vibration in the same area as the PSVs, and there was a belief that PSV 49195 may have been a cause and symptom, and when the vibration ceased after closing 44HV131 it confirmed to them that they had taken the correct action when closing the valve.
Immediate causes of the incident
Closure of 44HV131, while operating the HP Compressor, resulted in the valve being subject to pressure in excess of the safe level, resulting in leak from a valve body seal when exposed to 88bar.
Root causes of the incident
1. Change control: Failure to safely manage a change to the status of a locked valve.
2. Unclear / inconsistent procedures: There is instruction in platform operating procedures manual Vol 5 to state that block valves downstream of PSVs should never be closed when operating. However, this specifically relates to maintenance and start up.
The UK guidelines to operate plant and equipment state that “the locking of a valve in either the open or closed position during normal operation may be necessary.” They also state that “if it is necessary to move such valves, this is controlled either by a work permit or an approved local procedure”.
A local platform procedure does exist for control of locked valves and authority lies with CRO/Supervisor.
“in the event of an emergency, there are designated roles for essential personnel”
3. Behaviours: Following a review of the Smith lock System Key Register, it was apparent that the changing status of locked valves was a regular activity. It appeared to be linked to the inability to spot the spec change on a P&ID and it was considered as a threat and was not looked for.
4. Competence: Issues relating to: four experienced individuals reading P&IDs and not identifying “spec breaks”; and taking a safety system out of use in the belief that it was the correct course of action and that they were authorised to do this.
5. Corporate memory: This incident was a repeat of an incident that happened in the field on the re-injection compressor discharge manifold with the same or similar consequences (gas leak).
I will now outline briefly my current work location and procedures followed during emergency or training situations, and roles and responsibilities.
The installation I work on is made up of five main levels. The Truss & Pallet deck are the lowest level and have an escape route at the south and north ends, to the 21ft level below the platform. Escape routes are also at north and south ends of the Truss deck up to the module deck and also on the east side from the Pallet deck up to the module deck. The same escape routes can also be used to access the 21ft platform from the Module deck. The module deck also has escape routes on the north, east and west sides, up to the skid deck level, which also allows access to the temporary refuge and primary muster stations located on the north end.
Alternative muster stations are located on the module deck on the south side, at lifeboats three, four and five.
The three remaining main levels are the Skid Deck, Pipe Deck and Helideck. Each have clear escape routes on the east and west sides, with an additional escape route from the Skid Deck to the south end of the accommodation module, which leads back towards the west side of the TR. Escape can also be made from the Pipe Deck along the golden mile towards the west side of the accommodation module.
Emergency response procedures
In the event of an emergency, there are certain procedures to be followed, as well as designated roles for essential personnel and all others. Everyone’s roles and responsibilities are specified on the station bills placed in strategic areas of the platform.
Personnel who don’t have a specific role will muster at their emergency stations as advised on the public address system (Tannoy).
The primary method to initiate an alarm would be to activate a general platform alarm/manual access point call point. Alternatively, a call could be made to the control room on 2222 or 112. Upon initiation of an alarm, I would head for my muster station and follow instructions from the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM) or his deputy.
The following is a breakdown of the roles and responsibilities in an emergency and what is expected if a situation occurs for which there is regular training to help everyone understand how to react in emergency.
Offshore installation manager: Controls and coordinates the emergency response
Deputy Offshore installation manager: Assists OIM or assumes OIM role if OIM incapacitated or whereabouts unknown
Control room operator: Monitors F&G screens and reports process status to OIM
Radio operator: Maintains communications
Operations techs: On standby to provide support as required
Inspector: Maintains log of events
Offshore Well Engineer: Provides technical advice to OIM
Facility Manager: Ensures accommodation is clear
Designated galley staff: Maintain fire watch in galley
Medic: On standby at sick bay and awaits instructions from OIM
First Aiders: On standby at sick bay and await instructions from medic
Platform Services Supervisor: Muster controller
Helicopter Landing Officer: On standby, follows muster controllers’ instructions
Emergency Response Team: On standby in ERT base, awaiting OIM’s Instructions
Stretcher party: Awaits instructions from OIM
Coxswains: Responsible for safe launching and operation of lifeboats on OIM’s instructions
Muster Checkers: Check muster POB numbers and report to muster controller
Helicopter operations and human nature complacency
As part of the emergency response team, I also take part in helideck operations. And, as one of the helideck crew, we are trained to be aware of the dangers both from the helicopter landing and taking off, but also on how complacency could endanger us or passengers, or indeed the helicopter.
The most dangerous parts of helicopter operations are taking off and landing, and indeed unloading and loading bags or passengers.
From a human nature point of view, sometimes passengers can be blinkered on the dangers of the rotating blades and where to walk. As part of the helideck crew, I must lead them safely to and from the helicopter.
The following also needs to be controlled and monitored:
A helicopter was on deck and the passengers and cargo were offloaded without incident. The HLO requested and received permission to load some of the manifested baggage and cargo inside the helicopter as the baggage area was insufficient. Once this was accomplished, the HLO commenced the boarding of the inbound passengers.
The manifest listed eight passengers. The pilot noticed movement of the port crane boom as the Crane Operator attempted to make a lift from a supply boat alongside. The pilot notified the HLO of this and the HLO left the helideck to shut down and secure the crane.
After the crane was shut down, the HLO returned to the helideck and noted that all the doors of the helicopter had been secured. Following a survey of the surrounding area the HLO gave the clearance signal for the helicopter to take off.
The return flight to shore was completed uneventfully and, as the pilot prepared to give the approval for the disembarkation of the passengers, he noticed that one of the passengers had some of the baggage on his lap secured by a seat belt.
After making a head count, the pilot discovered that he had a head count of ten passengers and not the eight as originally manifested.
The pilot ordered a cross check of the manifest and requested that all passengers and cargo be weighed. It was determined that the helicopter had made the return flight with approximately 308kg, or approximately 690lb, of weight – in excess of the air craft’s maximum allowable limits.
This is an example of where helicopter operations were not properly controlled, where passengers were trusted to manifest themselves and their baggage, which I may add should never happen again, as all operations take place in the United Kingdom under Civil Aviation Authority rules.
During a scheduled helicopter landing, the helicopter’s downdraft caused a large container weighing around 200kg (440lb) to be lifted over handrails and then fall around 10 metres (33ft) to the deck below.
The container had been in place for some months and had experienced several similar helicopter landings without incident. The container was placed on the roof of a structure adjacent to the helipad on wooden battens and was not secured.
The container was damaged in the fall. While no injuries were sustained, there was significant potential for serious injury.
In recent years, there has been a big push on stress, health and wellbeing offshore. This has been brought home to me as I have been offshore at the time when two suicides happened. The guys did not feel able to discuss that they were under stress; not just with work pressures, but in their personal lives at home.
In my opinion, a major factor in increased stress offshore for both the operatives and the family at home has been the move to extended rotation cycles. That is, a move from 2+2 (168 hrs) minimum to a 3+3 (252 hrs) rotation, working a normal shift of 12 hours a day, albeit with breaks, which obviously can be exhausting and may result in higher stress levels.
Bear in mind when the shift ends at the end of the day, you are still at your workplace until your trip ends.
The very fact of being in an offshore environment away from family and friends, sometimes for many weeks on end, does not help. Nor does sharing cabins with others – sometimes there can be up to four people sharing a cabin so you possibly can’t even get away from someone you work with or don’t get on with to have your own space for relaxation.
Thankfully, due to new initiatives, people may find it easier to speak out about their concerns and further incidents of stress can hopefully be avoided or reduced.
My prime focus is that all operatives arrive well and go home uninjured at the end of their trip. If this happens, I will have achieved something to be proud of.
Mike Cowie is a Health and Safety Practitioner and Safety Coach for Stork Technical Services. He promotes workplace culture change in multicultural environments, using a proactive safety approach and a focus on providing behaviour-based training to all staff. His aim is to develop a zero-incident safety culture. He is also an emergency responder, stretcher party assistant and helicopter safety assistant.
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