Safety becomes ‘cool’

February 1, 2013

Offshore work can be dangerous and many accidents have a strong human element in their causation. Victor Schmidt explains why the oil & gas industry must constantly adapt and adjust its work practices and tools to improve worker safety.

Mass media headlines shine a bright light on industry accidents, equipment failures, and fatalities. Incidents draw international attention because of their severity, and because of the global profile of the companies that build, service and operate offshore facilities. Although major incidents are rare, they can be spectacular when they occur.

Safety onboard rigs is a rising issue for another reason – the ‘great crew change’ is bringing a new generation of workers into the business, who will have to learn and follow the best operating practices that their predecessors have developed through years of experience. New workers and new technologies will further refine and improve workplace safety.

The offshore oil & gas business has been getting safer, even as significant incidents draw media attention. Statistics available from the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) Incident Statistics Program demonstrate a steadily improving workplace environment.

The program shows that staff worked an average 452.98 million hours/year over the 2008-12, five-year period. Through 3Q 2012, IADC survey participants reported 424,624,752.36 hours worked, so the total for 2012 will likely exceed the average of the prior fi ve years. Both incident rate/200,000 hours and frequency rate/1,000,000 hours for lost time incidents (LTI), days away restricted or transferred (DART), and recordable events (RCRD) have dropped by 45% or more since 2008 (see chart). The industry’s commitment to safety is clear from these statistics, and is showing continued improvement.

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Room to improve

Still, there is always more that can be done. Work practices continue to evolve with new tools and practices overcoming the shortcomings of established equipment and methods. The real key to improvement is how quickly work practice and equipment are replaced by evolving ‘best practice’ to supplant less-safe approaches with established work patterns.

The industry is notoriously slow to apply improved methods unless driven by outside events or regulation; witness the recent safety activity generated by the highprofile Macondo event. Established practices develop their own inertia, once operational procedures and proficiency are in place. It is easy for supervisors to manage, monitor and control the flow of work, even with permit delays and other regulation. But cultural inertia should not put lives at risk when improved tools and methods reduce risk with minimal cost.

Hot work

An example of glacial response is ‘hot work’, activities that require high heat, open flame, generate sparks, or produce hot metal surfaces that can ignite hydrocarbon vapors. Work practices have been developed to regulate and permit such work, contain the hot elements, minimize hydrocarbon vapors in the work area, and shield workers from serious harm. Yet, incidents continue to happen.

Joseph R Hurt, IADC VP onshore operations, provides recent statistics on hot work. “We do not have our data completed for 2012, but in 2011 we had 2934 recordable incidents. Of these there were 30 injuries to welders, and of them four were from heat sources. There were a total of 23 incidents where workers were burned from some source, but only the four welder burns were due to flame or heat from burning. Other incidents involved steam hoses, hot engines, or other equipment. Five of the incidents were to workers on offshore rigs. Three of the five were to welders working on South American offshore rigs,” notes Hurt.

The explosion and fire last November on a platform in the US Gulf of Mexico’s West Delta block 32 (pictured left) emphasizes the point. Twenty-two construction workers were on the shutin platform; nine were injured and three were killed in the incident. Early reports placed the cause as a worker cutting through a tank’s pipeline with a gas torch. A review is underway to determine the specific cause, but the Bureau of Safety & Environment Enforcement (BSEE) requested that the operator, Black Elk Energy, cease all ‘hot work’ on its facilities until safety improvements are made.

Spark-less cutting tools are available to eliminate fi res from hot work.

This event might have been avoided if a change in standard methods and tools was in place. What if hot work had been kept to a minimum by a simple change in the tools used? How much time, money and heartache could be saved by eliminating the need for hot work permits, risk evaluations, special habitats, and fireguards?

Step change?

A proven tool exists that eliminates the need for a hot work permit, yet has cutoff and grinding capability. It produces filings whose temperature 30-60°C (86-140°F) is well below the ignition point of any stray hydrocarbon gases on production platforms or drilling rigs.

Manufactured by TFT-Pneumatic Industrial Tools, the system (pictured above) changes the hot-work game by replacing the industry standard, high-speed grinder with a lower-speed tool that uses a proprietary, tungsten carbide-based cutting wheel to shear metal, rather than striking steel with a whirling stone wheel that throws high-temperature sparks.

The tool is already established and working daily in the North Sea. It comes with multiple attachments for different tasks, is driven by compressed air, and requires no specialized training other than to change out its working parts. The cultural change needed for implementation is minimal. There is one drawback, the initial cost is high; but the savings in time, money and life are irreplaceable.

Perhaps it is time for the industry to implement a new ‘best practice’ that changes the game for hot work. OE