Working on offshore installations is something fraught with risks. David Fishlock, of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s (IOSH) offshore sector group, looks at some of those risks and details how they can be managed to protect workers.
Many thousands of people work on offshore installations around the world, including a significant number in The Middle East.
Their roles on these installations vary, but they all play a crucial role in the energy industry. Whatever that role may be, one thing they have in common are the health and safety risks that come with working offshore.
There have of course been many well-documented incidents offshore around the world over the years, when things have gone wrong from a health and safety perspective, some of them causing ill-health and multiple injuries and fatalities.
What is crucial is that lessons from these incidents are learned, and we put measures in place which prevent further similar incidents and ensure that people are as well protected as possible.
There are far too many health and safety risks related to offshore working to detail in this article alone – all of the pages of this entire issue wouldn’t be enough. So, what I’d like to do is pick out two key areas – one the hazards around offshore lifeboats, the other around working in and around confined spaces – and detail how those in the industry can ensure workers are safe.
In 2014, my employer’s operations training unit supervisor asked me to join an ad-hoc lifeboat safety committee to develop a training manual for the lifeboat crew that assist the coxswain in manning the twin fall and single fall lifeboats, or TEMPSC (totally-enclosed motor propelled survival craft) to give them their official name.
I started by doing research into what was already out there and found that the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) had released a circular (MSC.1/Circ1205) which encouraged companies to develop their own training material as a lack of them was leading to many lifeboat accidents around the world in the offshore and maritime industries.
As I undertook the research, I contacted many vendors who supplied lifeboats to offshore installations, to get the information I needed, including operations and maintenance manuals, and also found the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). I collated all the information and developed a training manual of 71 pages, which I used to start teaching pilot courses on the job training (OJT) offshore with regular employees. This was very successful and has led onto me training thousands of employees over a seven-year period.
During this time, I learned much more about the main hazards around lifeboats and the safety equipment that is available. One of the main hazards when working with lifeboats is inadvertently opening the hooks from the lifeboats’ stowed position, which tends to be around 25-30 metres above sea level. Lifeboats are located in strategic locations on an installation, but most are found on the accommodation platform.
If the lifeboat hooks are accidentally opened, it creates the risk of the lifeboat dropping into the sea, potentially with someone inside, for example someone undertaking operational checks. There are other things which could cause such an incident, for example if there has been mechanical failure such as of the winch brake system or steel wire ropes. This could put a person inside at risk of serious harm.
I also learned that there are further measures which can be used to prevent lifeboats falling. When the vendors install and commission equipment, they issue fall prevention devices, called maintenance pennants. Through our OJT, we emphasise the importance of these devices, which are sometimes referred to as secondary connections. They are secondary safety connections for the lifeboats, so if hooks were to open it’s not possible for the lifeboat to drop to the sea. It is crucial that these are correctly installed when anyone is entering a lifeboat to undertake checks, maintenance, training, or drills.
However, as with many things, they can bring risks with them, and we must consider the risks that these fall prevention devices bring.
Chief among these is the possibility of the devices being left connected in an emergency when the boats go to launch. What could happen is an emergency occurs and you get everyone into the lifeboat but when you pull the launch wire, it won’t go anywhere. So, now you have to get everyone out of the boat again so you can remove the devices, thereby wasting valuable, even crucial, time in the evacuation.
With this in mind, it is vitally important that thorough training is given in using all of the lifeboat safety devices. Failure to do this can have very serious consequences.
What is really important in this is to ensure that there are certified and competent coxswains who can safely operate the lifeboats. These employees are carefully selected from the operations producing department who are sent to the UAE to a specialist training centre where they can practice launching and releasing lifeboats for real into the sea, for OPITO approved training courses.
It’s key that installations have enough coxswains to man each lifeboat, with spares as well.
Working in confined spaces
Another major risk associated with working offshore which I’m going to cover is that of working in and around confined spaces.
These of course are not just specific to offshore work and there are a number of definitions available for confined spaces. I tend to use one which stipulates a confined space is one which meets these five criteria:
- Large enough to allow workers in.
- Has limited means of entry or exit.
- Not designed for human occupancy.
- Contains, or has the ability to contain, hazardous atmosphere.
- Contains any other recognised safety or health hazards.
The main ones we tend to focus on are that confined spaces are not designed for human occupancy, there is restricted means of access and egress (or entry and exit), and any space that could have a flammable, toxic or oxygen deficient/enriched atmosphere.
What is also important to recognise is that confined spaces are not always small and cramped. They can of course be very small but you can also have very large confined spaces which fit into the above descriptor.
Examples in offshore installations can include offshore process vessels, storage tanks, manholes, ventilation ducts and sewers. There are many more, but something they all share is that they are fraught with risks, which I will now look at.
Risks of confined spaces
As with lifeboats, there are many hazards associated with working in confined spaces. I will now look at some of the main ones now and detail how they might be controlled by carefully planning the job in advance.
The risks: being inside confined spaces often means you are surrounded by lots of pipework, which can bring the risk of being overcome with gases and liquids.
The controls: we need to make sure we have the correct level of isolation, of all pipework in and out. The only acceptable level of isolation is positive isolation, so it must be either blinded or disconnected; this is the highest level of piping isolation.
The risk: the main thing to consider here is high temperatures, which brings clear risks for operators.
The controls: we can use air blowers, which blow fresh air in while another sucks stale air out. This means we can have a constant change of atmosphere inside which helps to regulate the temperature and create an air flow, thereby making working more comfortable for the entrants.
The risk: often working in confined spaces requires the use of electrically powered tools and transformers, which of course brings with it some real risk of accidental electrocution.
The controls: hot work permit, low voltage 110v supply and if we have moisture inside, we need to use high speed ground fault circuit breakers (GFCI) in case of a fault on the circuit on any electrical devices. This will shut down the power outlet within 1-40th of a second. We may have electrical isolation from outside if there’s any electrical equipment inside vessels, for example heaters. These need to be isolated, accompanied by a lock out tag out (LOTO) system (see below for more on this). Air movers/blowers used for ventilation can generate static electricity and must be grounded. Use approved UL or FM electrical equipment only. All electrical equipment must be classified for the zone for which it is intended to be used.
“thorough training is vital in using all of the lifeboat safety devices”
The risk: you can often get freewheeling of rotating equipment internally, and other devices in vessels like baffles which again bring about safety risks.
The controls: ensure all mechanical equipment is isolated and securely locked off. Sometimes we need to consider the use of scaffold; if someone is going in and a fan is still able to rotate freely, to stop it from freewheeling we jam it with a scaffold tube.
The risk: inside steel drums there can be a risk of loud noises, for example if someone is using a hammer, it’s far louder than it would be outside.
The controls: we try to keep noise levels to a minimum, but often this is not possible. For example, if someone is using equipment such as a grinder it creates high levels of noise and the only way to prevent noise-induced hearing damage is to protect your ears. Of course, the use of PPE such as ear plugs and ear muffs are the last line of defence. If the noise is going to be very loud, we would ask people to come out while the work is happening.
Slips, trips, and falls
The risk: confined spaces can often be very damp and contain a lot of moisture due to humidity. This means they can be slippery, meaning the risks of slips and falls is very high.
The controls: we tend to clean out the inside of vessels as much as we can to remove sludge and other things that have built up over time. When it comes to falls, if anyone is working at an elevated height they must wear fall protection, such as a harness and lanyard.
The risk: linked to this is the fact that confined spaces can be very dark, meaning there is a risk that people working in them can’t see properly and may trip or hit their head, knees or elbows and sustain an injury.
The controls: we need to use explosion proof, low voltage lighting, with a maximum of 25 volts, to make sure lighting is adequate so people can see clearly enough to avoid an incident.
“work activities can change the atmospheric conditions in confined spaces”
The risk: within confined spaces, you often have the risks of flammable, toxic or oxygen deficient/enriched atmospheres which can be fatal for workers. This can be caused from the internal activity of the work itself such as welding or externally from a diesel engine such as generator.
The controls: we try to eliminate these risks by purging vessels with nitrogen, steam and water. Nitrogen (N2) tends to be the most common method to remove all flammable and toxic materials. In addition, we will carry out internal gas testing to sample for LEL, H2S, CO and O2. This can be initial testing (before work begins), periodic testing (every hour or two) or continuous monitoring throughout the work. One of the main risks is from hydrocarbons which are in the confined space during normal operations. We will seek to remove this with nitrogen and ventilate the confined space and carry out gas monitoring. Once the atmosphere is of an acceptable measure, between 20.0% and 23.5% oxygen, we will be able to issue a confined space entry permit.
Configuration of the space
The risk: as said, the shape and size of a confined space can differ markedly. Someone could climb in one and there are many corners to negotiate so the standby person can’t see them.
The controls: all confined spaces must have a standby person outside whose job it is monitor the work activity, maintain a log of everyone who goes inside and outside and must remain in communication with those inside by radio. If radio or other verbal communication isn’t possible, they can resort to using a rope – talking through tugging (one pull, two pulls, etc). The standby person must never enter the confined space. If there is an external emergency, they must warn the entrants so they can evacuate and, if there is an incident inside, must notify the standby rescue team.
The risk: the work activities themselves can change the atmospheric conditions in confined spaces. For example, someone doing welding can fill the space with fumes, or if they have heavy equipment like a generator outside, fumes from that can cause a breathing hazard.
The controls: craftsmen carrying out welding will require a fume extractor. Meanwhile, if someone is performing any external activities like the use of combustion engines, they need to make sure exhaust fumes don’t go near a confined space as the welding process can bring carbon monoxide into the vessel and displace oxygen. This can cause oxygen deficiency (less than 20.0%). The main toxic gases monitored are hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and carbon monoxide (CO). It is important to ensure confined spaces are barricaded and signage is used to warn passers-by of any hazards such nitrogen atmospheres.
Lock out, tag out
As mentioned earlier, there are very strict procedures with this safe system of work. This is designed to protect workers and equipment. It is applied during maintenance and confined space entry and line break works by preventing unexpected start-up of the equipment.
Essentially when someone goes inside a vessel, there is a need to isolate and disconnect it. But there is still a risk you could have an unexpected start up by someone who is unaware.
With this in mind, if you have pump or pipe isolated that’s connected to the vessel it needs to be locked. To do this we use lock out tag out devices –we lock the valve and put a chain around it and tag it to warn people. This tag contains information as to why the vessel is isolated and who did isolation.
There are three key people involved in confined space work:
- Confined space entry supervisor – this is normally a highly experienced employee who usually issues the permits.
- Standby person – they stand outside, log every access and egress, maintain communication and raise the alarm if there is a problem. They must also be trained in using firefighting equipment such as fire extinguisher or fire hose reel station.
- Entrants – those doing the job.
Before work can be done, they will carefully plan the work, including gas testing, to ensure all preparation is finalised. Only then can a permit be issued.
Another important consideration is that of rescue. To get people who are unconscious out of a confined space can be very difficult. They do this with ropes, stretchers and climbing equipment as the person could be in any position with life threatening injuries and you need to get them out the same way they came in. You then need to get them to the medic for initial treatment and evacuate by boat or helicopter as needed.
Of course, if we follow the hierarchy of controls, the best way of protecting people is to prevent the work from being done in the first place.
One way of doing this is during testing and inspection, which is normally done every five years. When doing this, you can shut down a whole plant and avoid anyone going into confined spaces on a live plant. When this happens, you minimise risk as you don’t have a live equipment with people inside vessels.
The other option, one which organisations are looking at, is the use of robotic technology to support with doing maintenance work. Overall, though, we will continue to need people on offshore installations. They play a key role and it is vital that the risks to their safety are managed well.