The challenges faced by the offshore industry in sub-Saharan Africa are no different to those in all great oil and gas producing countries during their emerging stages.
The specific risks mentioned in this article have been due to maintenance, repair and installation works, and lately, the Covid-19 pandemic. Decisions that were not sustainable have resulted in a lot of work being undertaken to make certain that assets, equipment and facilities are working, to ensure ongoing production.
Some of these specific risks inherent in the offshore oil and gas industry include the following.
“remotely operated vehicles used for all sub-sea maintenance require personnel to be highly trained”
Remotely Operated Vehicles
Remotely operated vehicles are used for all sub-sea maintenance, repairs and intervention works. The challenges with these machines are that they require personnel to be highly trained in order to gain appropriate operational experience. Aside from the ability to operate these machines, pilots should also have the ability to perform routine maintenance, minor repairs, system setup and assembly. The risks associated with operating these ROVs are:
1. High voltage
2. Working at height
3. Manual handling during equipment set up
4. Visual display screen risk
High Voltage Works
ROVs require a high voltage current to be fully functional. The power supply system provides high voltage to the ROV launch and recovery system. During maintenance works, such equipment must be isolated; improper isolation could result in fatality. It is important that personnel working on such equipment and systems are aware of the isolation procedures in place and how to properly check and verify the system is correct.
Such risks are mitigated by ensuring a competent person undertakes the isolation. Also, all residual energy must be dissipated from the system prior to working on it.
Working at Height
While working on such systems during maintenance, job performers are required to work at height usually involving routine inspections and maintenance of the ROV tether.
To mitigate the risks, working at height and rescue training are necessary for all workers involved in working at height, to develop their skills and competencies in these situations.
ROV technicians are exposed to the risk of manual handling in various operations, for example: while setting up the system for upcoming work scope, during routine maintenance and inspections. The image (left) shows an example of a hydrocarbon sampling operation, in which the ROV is docked onto a sampling skip that is used for the sampling of hydrocarbon.
Visual Display Unit Risk
Pilots must sit for long hours behind a display screen to deploy the ROV to undertake sub-sea operations. This exposure to DSE risk must be mitigated by, for example, allocating a period of not more than one hour for each pilot to be on the screen. A rotation system can be put in place to ensure that there are always pilot technicians available to substitute each other at the end of each one-hour session. Also, break periods including a coffee break can be allowed within the one hour to ensure that pilot technicians take some time away from the screen.
Outdated Field Architecture Layouts
Another risk within the industry, is with the outdated field architecture layout. The sub-sea field architecture layout shows how equipment and sub-sea assets are installed and laid out. It shows the exact location of all assets and equipment installed sub-sea to enable easy identification for inspection and maintenance works. However, even with the improvements being made within the sub-sea field, the architecture is unfortunately not updated in line with the recent development. This affects the helmsman system, which is used to display the cross-track error when navigating on planned survey lines and provides users with information to help them steer in the required direction as accurately as possible.
As changes to sub-sea field architecture are increasing, it’s important for all the new architecture be updated in the new helmsman system, but as mentioned above, this is unfortunately not the case. The risk this presents is that an installation or sub-sea work could be done in an area which may not be a safe handling zone, leading to a collision with, or damage to, a sub-sea asset should there be a dropped object.
This risk is normally lessened by having survey technicians capture all new field architecture developments onto the helmsman system. Usually, an independent survey technician identifies these new changes and integrates it into the helmsman system to keep it up to date. Unfortunately, such highly skilled professionals do not come cheaply, and consequently, most companies try to avoid employing them altogether. Yet, all companies know that the cost of an accident far outweighs the cost of engaging competent personnel to undertake a task.
In spite of this knowledge, companies are still reluctant to engage such competent professionals, hence the risk is still lurking for offshore companies operating in the sub-region.
Riser recovery and termination
A riser system is essentially made up of conductor pipes connecting floaters (Floating Production Storage and Offloading – FPSO) on the surface, and the wellheads on the seabed. There are two kinds of risers, namely rigid risers and flexible risers, but it is the latter which is mostly used in the sub-region. Over time the risers become faulty and require maintenance.
“there is a foreseeable risk of personnel working in the moonpool to fall from a height”
Termination of a faulty riser involves cutting the riser sub-sea and passing it through the moonpool to enable the damaged pieces of the riser to be properly terminated. This is a high-risk operation and all the personnel involved are usually expatriates. The operation involves deploying the Abandon-and-recovery winch and crane, via the moonpool, all the way to the seabed. The ROV connects the wet stored rigging ends to the riser, and it is then recovered to the deck. The riser hangs off at the moonpool with the use of an integrated hang-off clamp. From this point onward, the termination work process begins.
The risks involved in these operations include, but are not limited to, the following:
Working at Height
There is a foreseeable risk of personnel working in the moonpool to fall from a height. To mitigate these risks, a job safety analysis session is conducted with all involved in the work and a toolbox talk is held with the work supervisor. Suitable personal protective equipment (PPE), in this case a life vest with an accompanying safety harness connected to an inertia reel, is provided.
With the handling of the riser and work activity in the moonpool, manual handling risks can result in fatigue, and lead to injuries of the back, neck, shoulders, arms or other parts of the body. There can also be damage to the musculoskeletal system due to gradual and cumulative wear and tear through repetitive handling.
To reduce this risk, riggers and deck foremen are trained in manual handling risk assessment. A job safety assessment for all work activities and load is done prior to operation. All residual risk is mitigated to as low as reasonably practicable using the company’s risk matrix.
The Health, Safety, Environment and Quality (HSEQ) engineer on board also undertakes a self-verification to ensure there is compliance to procedures and the task plan. The HSEQ Engineer observes the work while it is ongoing to ensure workers are adhering to the agreed procedures, task plan, toolbox talk discussions, and job safety analysis discussion done for the specific operations.
Well Acid Stimulation Programme
Ensuring that any blockage is removed for efficient well production normally involves pumping chemicals (mostly acids) in to stimulate the well. With the various chemicals that are used for this operation, the risks involved are high. Exposure or spill of the chemicals could lead to ill health, severe injury or fatality.
A Control of Substance Hazardous to Health (COSHH) assessment is undertaken for all the chemicals to be used during such a project. The COSHH is discussed with all job performers, who are also trained and are aware of the hazards from the chemicals being used. Suitable and appropriate PPE is made available for each chemical, according to the requirements of the COSHH assessment. A copy of the COSHH assessment and safety data sheet for all chemicals is made available at the worksite for easy reference.
Another hazard during these operations is the ship-to-ship transfer of chemicals. Since a multi-purpose construction vessel used for the operation may not be able to store all the chemicals required for the operation, some chemicals are transferred from a Platform Support Vessel (PSV) via a hose to the ship used for the operation.
For safe operation during the ship-to-ship transfer of chemicals, the hose to be used for the transfer is checked to ensure it is of adequate length. It is also tested at a pressure of about 150% more than the operating pressure required for the operation, by a certified body to ensure the integrity of the hose to be used. There is also enforcement of adherence to procedure, and all discussions at toolbox talks and job safety assessment sessions, held prior to the operation. Where a change is required, a management of change is used to evaluate the new changes and all inherent hazards are discussed and appropriate mitigations put in place to reduce these hazards to as low as reasonably practicable. In cases where the job performers deviate from the agreements made in the toolbox talk and job safety analysis sessions, the HSEQ Engineer calls a time-out for safety. The deviation is addressed and discussed with the job performers to ensure that safe execution of the operations continues.
Lifting Operations for Sub-Sea Operation
Most of the work done in sub-sea operation involve lifting operations. Since the scope of work is mainly offshore construction, maintenance, repair, and intervention (IMR) works, a lot of the time there is the need for the multi-purpose construction vessel to come to the harbour to mobilise equipment and tools for offshore operations. Equipment lifted from the port includes:
• Christmas Tree
• Flow lines
• Met ocean buoy
• Umbilical Termination Assembly (UTAJ)
Accidents and Incidents in the Region
Hand injury incidents have become more frequent in the sub-region, resulting in the most lost time incidents. Such incidents occur at least once a month.
On one occasion, a contracted employee lost a finger while trying to align a flange on a pipe spool. Investigation of these incidents showed that the risk of finger injury was identified and discussed at Hazard Identification and Risk Assessments (HIRA), Job Safety Analysis (JSA) and Toolbox talks – yet these incidents still occurred. The root cause of these was found to be human error, which was mostly complacency on the part of the job performer.
To reduce these risks, there was a focus on hand injury awareness training for all contractors and clients within the Ghanaian field. There is also increasing awareness in the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) Life Saving Rules as part of induction, integrated into toolbox talk sessions.
These moves have proved fruitful in curbing the root cause of these incidents, and has resulted in a decrease in incident rates, from 12 to two a year.
The Coronavirus development was closely and continuously monitored by medical provider Remote Medical International (RMI) to ensure suitable and appropriate arrangements were in place to safeguard employees against the spread of Covid-19.
The mitigations implemented for managing the pandemic included the following:
- Regular vessel management calls to inform of Covid-19 status, mitigation plans and gain alignment. All medics were issued with specific instructions regarding the management of suspected cases of Coronavirus on vessels. Personnel who developed symptoms of Covid-19 as per the WHO symptom list below were treated as suspected cases.
- For any type of face mask, appropriate use and disposal are essential to ensure that they are effective and to avoid any increase in transmission.
- Personnel were required to wash their hands when removing or covering their faces and the re-use of single-use masks was prohibited.
- All personnel mobilising to vessels had their temperature checked prior to checking in.
- Vessel management designated suitable room(s) to be used in the event of a suspected Covid-19 situation.
- Canteens/mess-rooms were made to restrict buffet service and to individually plate meals for each crew member.
- Onboard gyms were closed.
Mental Health and Covid-19
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a need for workers to extend their stay offshore. To ensure adequate measures were in place to prevent any infection offshore, a methodology was implemented to ensure that workers travelling would be safe and not exposed to the virus.
This led to an impact on the mental health of workers, and a need arose to have a forum to discuss some pertinent issues, to ensure there was clarity among the work team.
For these and other reasons, a forum was held offshore to create awareness of management decisions and to consult workers for their input in ensuring that all workers are safe. A few of the points raised are highlighted below.
1. Continued safety and health of personnel offshore by ensuring incoming personnel carry no risk of exposure to Covid-19
2. Concerns about safety of incoming crew in terms of Covid-19 exposure
3. Access to means of communication to enable personnel keep in touch with family back home
4. Authenticity of information that spreads around the vessel. Curbing spread of fake news or rumours
5. Safety of food and all items received from onshore from exposure to Covid-19
6. Institution of general rest days to allow for personnel to take break from work to help alleviate mental fatigue from prolonged stay and work
Wider Impact of Covid-19 on the Industry
Within the sub-region, the impact of Covid-19 has been horrendous. Key personnel with special skills were not able to attend work for risk of being infected. So, management had to manage with personnel who only had limited knowledge of the operation.
As most flights were not operating, there were high production costs. Management had to hire chartered flights to fly staff around the world to their homes, greatly increasing business costs.
Job loss was also prevalent in the region. Most production facilities were reduced to a minimum, offices were closed, and workers made to work from home. This resulted in the loss of jobs as, those who were retained, were made to do the task of two or more workers. In summary, the challenges of the oil and gas industry in the sub-Saharan African region are probably no different to those of any emerging oil and gas country, with the additional effect of Covid-19 making it even more challenging. Notwithstanding these challenges, workers are improving themselves to be more competent at what they do by learning rapidly on the job and committing to continued improvement.