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Many people may not be aware that an oil and gas platform is a production plant comprising complex heavy plant and miles of pipework to separate the oil and gas from water and other impurities before piping it onshore. Some platforms have as many as five levels and decks and require “hotel” accommodation facilities for sometimes hundreds of workers. In addition to processing, a platform may also have attached a drilling rig so that drilling and processing occur simultaneously.
As you can imagine, since a platform may sit atop and process tons of hydrocarbon with multiple simultaneous operations (simops), perhaps a hundred miles offshore, subject to wild weather, and needing a stream of supply vessels to supply its operational and human needs, safety has the highest priority at every instance.
There will be many similarities between the safety tools and processes on an oil and gas platform and a land-based refinery or large factory. However, over 25 years of working on over 40 platforms worldwide, there are some observations that might spur thoughts to improve safety even more.
In some countries, before being allowed to work on an offshore platform one must complete a pre-attendance orientation. Completion of a three-day Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training course comprises firefighting, first aid and helicopter water ditching escape is required. This certificate has to be renewed every five years. Not only that, in the UK, workers must attend a Minimum Industry Safety Training which covers all aspects of working offshore. This MIST certificate must be renewed online every two years. Consequently, people with no offshore platform experience will become well versed in the day-to-day operations, departments, tools used, and the major risks and their control.
After all this onshore training a worker arriving on a platform for the first time will be subject to an induction. Often these inductions leave a lot to be desired. They are often two to three hour sessions of videos, leaflets and documents regarding various rules and procedures which swamp people with tons of information they do not remember. Sometimes the inductor makes it sound as if the induction is a chore to get through as quickly as possible, as opposed to an essential step in knowing how to keep safe and what to do in an emergency. After the indoor induction there is a walk-about around the platform. Often the value of this is diminished by noise and the inductor not waiting for inductees to catch up to hear what is being said. There is usually no opportunity for questions. Thankfully, most platforms require every new worker to meet the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM) for a pep talk and to continue the induction with the worker’s supervisor. However, this continuing induction is often not recorded and monitored.
Permit to work
An oil and gas platform is a busy place. The production workers for the oil company make sure their processes run smoothly. Drilling crews fulfil the heavy work of completing the drilling plan, and third-party contractors conduct the many jobs in a continuous maintenance programme. Deck crews undertake the daily task of many lifts, loading and unloading boats. The Permit to Work system (PTW) is a vital tool ensuring that all parties know what others are doing and to build awareness when one operation may create hazards for another. However, sometimes this “paperwork” is seen as a routine burden and I have seen supervisors being asked to sign-off permits after getting out of the shower or at the breakfast table. Clearly, for the PTW system to work requires full attention to every job, not just a cursory glance and a sign off.
Of course, before the permits for that day are issued every job has to be thoroughly risk assessed. Certain major tasks on a platform may take risk assessments that last for days and turn into major hazard identification exercises (HAZID). These risk assessments may result in documents running to many pages – even up to 60! Considerable effort has to be made to turn these efforts into practical steps that can be easily followed by workers doing the job. I have witnessed instances where a risk assessment for a job on one platform is merely copied for the same job on a sister platform. This was not a risk assessment but a challenge on how to get the document to print from the computer. The error in doing this is self evident. The conditions on the sister platform may not be identical and the necessary thinking is not done, thus exposing people to uncontrolled hazards. For everyday jobs on the platform the task starts with a risk assessment where all people engaged in the task identify all the things that could hurt people, and agree on the controls that should be put in place to ensure that the potential errors and accidents do not take place. Sometimes these risk assessments are not as effective as they could be. Not all people engaged with the job attend and some people do not take active part. Sometimes because of the perceived pressure of time the supervisor leading the assessment is tempted to rush through it. Some workers, although they do not understand, are too coy to ask questions.
Safety observation system
Once all the planning and risk assessing is done, safety depends on the awareness and behaviours of those doing the various jobs. An excellent safety tool employed on many platforms is a safety observation system (SOS). On a large plant the supervisors and health and safety advisors cannot be everywhere. Therefore, safety is regarded as a duty on everyone. The SOS encourages people to observe unsafe behaviours and conditions, and then take actions to stop them turning into accidents. All people are trained on how to have polite concentrations to avoid confrontation when stopping any job. This is an easy and cost-effective way of identifying possible problems before they become serious incidents.
Another valuable safety tool used on many platforms is the “safety audit”. A supervisor chooses a junior colleague, they select a job taking place and plan a series of questions to ask the people doing the job. When they visit the worksite they first observe how the workers are doing the job then stop work and ask questions. This is done in a non-threatening way – an educational opportunity to check the controls in the risk assessment are in place and that the best work practices are being followed. Again, a learning opportunity to ensure safety is a first priority.
“safety is regarded as a duty on everyone. The SOS encourages people to observe unsafe behaviours and conditions”
Yet another safety tool is the weekly safety meeting. It is mandatory to attend these and the content covers recent incidents from sister platforms, a reminder talk on some aspect of safety and even a short training session. However, these potentially valuable events are often perceived as a boring waste of time. They are misused to conduct major training events or lectures using death by PowerPoint. To make them more effective safety meetings should be short and as interactive as possible – using quizzes and exercises.
In addition to safety tools and systems there is a range of structural and procedural precautions taken. For example, the accommodation units where people eat, and sleep are separated from production and drilling operation by blast walls to limit any injury from explosions, however rare that may be. Throughout the platform are numerous fire and gas detection units and telephone stations to alert the control room of any adverse conditions.
When a platform includes drilling activities, the driller has access to an emergency shut down button. If the driller detects the possibility of gas and oil escaping from the well, he/she can activate the blow-out preventor valve to prevent a major incident. The manual handling of heavy machinery and tubulars on the platform itself and from boats to the platform and vice versa. Consequently, every platform has at least two cranes, the drillers have an “iron roughneck” and pipe racking machine to handle tubulars and deck crews are supplied with special poles to guide loads so they do not have to touch them.
“to make them more effective safety meetings should be short and as interactive as possible – using quizzes and exercises”
Regular maintenance of all production and safety equipment is an essential aspect of platform safety. There are two factors working against effective maintenance. Maintenance may mean shutting down the platform which means reduction in revenue from oil and gas flows. Most managements are aware that in the long term these shutdown mean good safety and good business. However, more senior company directors may put pressure for the oil flow and revenue to continue, putting back maintenance for a year. Non-critical maintenance involves using funds and peoplepower that could be used in “more productive” production and drilling activities. Sometimes the decision to delay maintenance and subsequent breakdowns can be traced back as a cause of safety incidents.
Because platforms have the potential to have serious accidents, sometimes involving evacuation by lifeboat, or life raft or helicopter, frequent emergency drills are conducted. On arrival on the platform everyone is given a muster station location and alerted to the various alarms for a gas leak or a fire. When going to the muster station one is supposed to dress in warm clothing and take from your cabin a grab bag with a survival suit and other lifesaving items. Also, the drills are supposed to replicate a real-life emergency but often people are told in advance when the drill will take place, and so get to their muster point even before the alarm goes off. Depending on how strict supervisors are, some people do not take the drills seriously and thereby potentially put others at risk should a real emergency occur.
Effective safety leadership and people management are essential ingredients in platform safety. Here are a few examples.
Getting workers to offshore platforms is usually done by helicopter. Flights can be delayed due to fog or high wave conditions. People can check-in at the heliport at say 6am and only fly out at 5pm to arrive at the platform at 6pm for an induction. Imagine the fatigue factor for those who have to start a 12-hour night shift. After a few accidents caused by this, safety advisers check the number of hours people have been awake and allow people to sleep before starting a shift.
Complex operations on a platform are often conducted by specialised technicians employed by third party companies. These specialists are in demand and travel worldwide. There have been instances where a technician has flown into the UK at 7am after an 8-hour flight from say, a two-week job in Canada and go immediately to the heliport to fly offshore at 10am. No rest and fatigue create a human factor hazard and many platforms now require “service hands” to prove they have had sufficient rest before flying offshore.
Remember that offshore workers can be on a three-week on and three-week off rotation. This can be tough being away from their families. Companies make great efforts to ensure that the accommodation facilities are comfortable with excellent food, televisions in every cabin, gymnasiums and other recreational activities such as pool tables and a cinema. Occasionally, as caused by the POB (person on board) number being exceeded, over-crowding or deterioration of toilet and showering facilities due to old age can ensue, leading to a deterioration of conditions, and an adverse effect to morale. Clearly, if people are angry they cannot think straight, and another human factor hazard is at work.
“effective safety leadership and people management are essential ingredients in platform safety”
Time at the coalface
Here is another example of how essential effective safety leadership is for platform safety. An investigation after a spate of accidents revealed that supervisors were stuck to their desks answering telephone calls and emails to meet the many question they were asked by managers on the beach. A rule was passed that supervisors had to be out on the plant for at least three hours per day. Accident rates were considerably reduced. The simple task of walking the job, and asking people at the coalface how things are going is a way of identifying things
that may turn into hazards and staking steps to correct them.
For many platform safety tools to work, people need to feel very comfortable about stopping unsafe jobs and jobs that are not going to plan. What better way to generate this culture than by managers and supervisors setting the example by stopping the job?
Dr Bill Robb
Dr Bill Robb is a leading North Sea safety specialist, who has worked as a consultant for the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen for 25 years.
Since starting in health and safety in 1995, Dr Robb’s work has included producing safety briefings and contributing to accident investigations, working onshore and offshore across 23 countries. His main passion is carrying out talks and workshops on health and safety; however, following a recent diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease (MND) this is no longer possible.
MND is a progressive disease that stops signals from the brain reaching the muscles. It has no cure and affects people in different ways, but can cause inability to walk, eat, drink or breathe unaided. Dr Robb praised the excellent work of the NHS, and hopes to raise awareness of the terminal illness. Supported by his wife and daughter, he is always hopeful of continuing his work, saying: “As long as I can type, I will continue.”
As a specialist in behavioural safety, one of the achievements he’s most proud of are the strides made in North Sea safety culture since the 1990s, with the industry very focused on the human and cost benefits of health and safety. One of his biggest professional concerns is that the value gained over the last 25 years may be lost, and he is therefore releasing some of his research via Linkedin.
Dr Robb’s crowdfunding page can be found at www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/bill-robb.
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