Oil well and good: ensuring safety offshore

25 November 2015

In the offshore pipeline industry, contractors are under pressure to ensure that projects are completed in as cost-effective a way as possible, but workers should not be at risk of injury or death in the pursuit of profitability. Jim Banks speaks to Bruno Maerten, head of the International Pipeline & Offshore Contractors Association’s HSE Committee, to look at the industry’s track record on safety and how it can be improved even further.

Any major pipeline project comes with a certain element of risk, which is why health and safety is right at the top of the agenda for oil and gas majors, their contractors and industry associations. When those pipelines are offshore, the risks are magnified and, despite consistent improvements in safety, the industry's efforts are still relentless in the pursuit of risk reduction.

"There is a big difference between onshore and offshore environments when it comes to safety," says Bruno Maerten, chairman of the HSE Committee at the International Pipeline & Offshore Contractors Association (IPLOCA). "One of the most obvious differences is that there is a restricted amount of space on offshore vessels and platforms. On a barge, you might have 200 people working at one time in a space that is only 50m long and 20m wide. That is a lot of people to have contained in such a small space,"

"You also have to consider that the laying and welding of pipelines is done 24 hours a day, which can create risk. There is also greater risk at times of crew change, as people are transferring between vessels. What we can see clearly is that the industry has a good track record on safety," he adds.

Major improvement
IPLOCA is the main forum for pipeline and offshore contractors, with members in more than 40 countries and a worldwide membership that comprises 240 of the industry's main players. It works with this community to help the industry tackle significant global challenges, including geopolitical issues, inhospitable working environments and the lack of skilled workers. It focuses not only on the work being done on new pipelines but also the ongoing maintenance of older pipelines.

There are, of course, a great number of issues arising from the many challenges facing the pipeline sector - from emerging technology, contractor-owner relationships, and the changing patterns of consumer demand for oil and gas - but IPLOCA has shown its commitment to the promotion of health and safety as one of the industry's top priorities. Its guiding principle in this area is that all accidents are preventable. Its goal, therefore, is to encourage all of its members to implement the most efficient and effective health and safety measures they can in all of their activities.

"Our priority right now is fatalities. Overall, the industry does health and safety very well, but it will not be reducing its efforts. Everyone still has a lot of work to do."

The IPLOCA HSE Committee has always focused on improving the quality and reliability of the health and safety statistics it receives from members. It has been collecting data and collating statistics from member companies since 1999, and as a condition of membership, its regular members are required to submit annual data to the organisation. Through its efforts to gather comprehensive data, IPLOCA confirms that the industry performs well in minimising risk (see 'Safety in numbers', right).

"We are talking about a lost-time injury [LTI] rate of under one for every million hours worked, and in the combined fields of onshore and offshore work, we are looking at more than 700 million manhours. That data also includes not only countries that are mature in this industry but also markets that are still developing, such as China, India and many African countries, where legislation may be very different. That said, the standards that apply when working for oil majors are the same anywhere in the world," Maerten notes.

"There are, however, some areas on which we must still work hard. One concern for the industry is the number of fatalities. In 2004, eight people died during those 700 million manhours of work on pipeline projects. The fatality rate has come down a lot over the years, but it is still unacceptable. We cannot tolerate anyone losing their life."

In pursuit of a perfection
No matter how well the industry does in reducing the rate of injury and death, it clearly will not be enough for Maerten and his HSE Committee until there are no incidents. This may seem like the impossible dream, but it is a goal that focuses the efforts of IPLOCA and its members.

IPLOCA is committed to promoting safety, and its annual Health and Safety Award, sponsored by Chevron, is presented in recognition of a significant achievement in this field. The organisation also provides extensive training opportunities and materials, including workshops in which members can share experiences and information about initiatives that are being put into practice to prevent incidents and accidents. The latest workshop focused on 'The role of safety myths in the prevention of incidents' and, in previous years, there has been discussion about 'High-potential incidents' and 'Preventing catastrophic losses'.

Training materials available through IPLOCA include a video from the INGAA Foundation that describes the attitudes and behaviours that are critical to developing the appropriate safety mindset. IPLOCA has also adapted a course prepared by the Canadian Construction Council and other key stakeholder groups to address health and safety issues specific to pipeline construction in the oil and gas sector.

In these workshops and materials - and in IPLOCA's broad approach to raising awareness of safety issues - it is clear that the sharing of knowledge is a fundamental principle in defining the safety culture.

"Communication is essential," says Maerten. "People have to share their experience - good and bad - and the people who are in charge of safety should not compete with each other. They can all benefit from the experiences of others. This is a part of our reporting process. Part of our website enables people to share the lessons they have learnt. Everyone can input their stories and everyone can access them. You can see how a problem emerged and how it can be solved. Some oil companies have a similar system."

Setting the standard
Safety is one issue that is easier to address when there is a clear industry standard at which to aim, but therein lies one of the biggest problems Maerten that feels needs to be addressed.

"For contractors, a big difficulty is working for different companies. The big oil majors have the highest standards, but contractors may find themselves working in a regional community in a less-developed country where there is no set standard. In such cases, contractors have to be consistent, so they must sometimes implement their own standards and explain them to their clients," he says.

"We want to do some work on standards, but our priority right now is fatalities. Among our members, the number of fatalities has halved in the past two years. Overall, the industry does health and safety very well, but it will not be reducing its efforts. Everyone still has a lot of work to do," he points out.

From the top
For Maerten, the biggest steps forward are always taken when companies employ a top-down approach to safety. To help the industry achieve its ambitious safety targets, he urges the people at the head of their companies to lead by example to ensure that health and safety are firmly at the heart of corporate culture.

"We have to improve safety on every job. We have to build a culture of safety and target zero fatalities. One way to do this is to ensure management initiative. Safety must come from the management of a company, which must take specific actions to instil the right culture and the right processes.

"Safety culture will be derived from the actions of management and will spread to all of the other people in the company. Management must demonstrate that it does not want any accidents on the job. In other words, management must not accept any lack of safety," Maerten believes. "It is about training and implementing safety procedures, but it must go deeper than that; safety must come before money."

Safety in numbers
In November 2014, IPLOCA's HSE Committee defined key performance indicator (KPI) objectives for figures collected during 2015. These include no fatalities and a total recordable incident rate (TRIR) lower than 3.0. For 2014, the statistics show TRIR at only 2.62.
The highlights from the 2014 data include:

  • n fatalities from injuries sustained working on pipeline projects: 8
  • n fatality frequency rate per million hours worked: 0.011
  • n lost-time injury (LTI) cases: 712
  • n LTI frequency rate per million hours worked: 0.99
  • n lost work days (LWD): 25,719
  • n LWD severity rate per million hours worked: 35.9
  • n total recordable incidents: 1,880
  • n TRIR per million hours
  • worked: 2.62
  • n restricted work cases (RWC)/injuries preventing normal duties: 284
  • n RWC rate per million hours worked: 0.4
  • n medical treatment cases (MTC): 884
  • n MTC rate per million hours worked: 1.23
  • n health and safety training hours: 6,314,228.

Source: IPLOCA 2014 Statistics Report

The HSE impact of pipeline corrosion: a word from NACE International
Pipeline corrosion can have a significant impact on the health and safety of personnel and the wider environment. NACE International's mission is to protect people, assets and the environment from this potentially hazardous problem, as its president, Dr Harvey Hack, explains:

"The risk of leakage and environmental damage are greater with pipelines than for other offshore structures, but while there are hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines, there are very few leaks, because good protection has been put in place. However, there are some failures at the waterline, most of which are mechanical. In the Gulf of Mexico, 300 structures have been lost, but none of them have been subsea pipelines."

Sound inspection, maintenance and repair help to minimise the environmental risk of corrosion, but what about the potential health and safety hazards for personnel who are undertaking these tasks? Automated inspection techniques using internal sensors and ROVs can remove some, but not all, of the risks.

"In areas like the Gulf of Mexico, inspection with ROVs can be more difficult," says Hack. "It is a busy shipping lane, so subsea pipelines fewer than 200m below the surface must be buried 5m down, meaning that inspection requires sections to be dug up. ROVs are still great for inspection though, but permanent corrosion sensors can also be installed to allow computer monitoring."

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