Mike Rice reveals the three best practices for mitigating dropped object risk
Technical innovations are increasingly being adopted to prevent dropped object hazards in the oil & gas industry – both onshore and offshore – as market changes drive the sector to push the limits on the lifespan and structural integrity of industrial equipment and vessels. However, a steady rate of dropped object incidents across rigs, vessels and facilities indicates that there is more to be done.
Industry statistics demonstrate the scale and nature of the threat posed by dropped objects to oil & gas personnel. According to DROPS, dropped objects are among the top 10 causes of fatality in the industry. One global company reported that approximately 68% of its high-potential incidents in 2017 was caused by dropped objects.
By now, most HSE and management teams across the industry will be well-acquainted with the threat dropped objects pose; not only to the safety of personnel, but also to the financial, reputational and legal standing of businesses. In recent years, these risks have motivated many firms to implement increasingly robust mitigation measures as standard.
However, with wider market dynamics likely to bring this issue to the fore once more, it is critical that progress is maintained. Corrosion, sustained by vessels and offshore infrastructure during periods of inactivity without maintenance, is likely to elevate dropped object risk, while cost pressures resulting from ‘boom and bust’ cycles, combined with the drive towards life extension and increasing personnel turnover, may ultimately impact the sector’s ongoing response to health and safety challenges.
So how can the industry be sure it continues to take a best practice approach to mitigating the major dropped object hazards?
Harsh environments mean that corrosion is a common cause of weakened fixtures upon on- and offshore structures, especially on unmanned or ‘stacked’ facilities that do not benefit from regular human supervision.
Vibration from drilling activities or impacts relating to operating equipment can also cause fixtures to fall. For example, during lifting operations on a jack-up rig, the load or lifting gear could swing and break a floodlight’s mounting bracket. Without an effective preventative solution in place, this floodlight could fall from height, resulting in damage and potentially injury.
Human error remains a significant factor, not just during routine operations, but also in the approaches adopted to mitigate dropped object risks. A large proportion of fixtures and fittings that drop do so because they have been inadequately secured, or because proper procedures have not been followed.
‘Sling’ solutions have commonly been deployed to tackle dropped object risks – constituting a cable tethered to the structure and attached to a loose fixture. However, such a sling would be unlikely to prevent an object from dropping if the mounting bracket came loose, for instance. A solution is needed that encases the whole object and attachment structure.
The industry is starting to standardise its use of robust netting solutions, which fully enclose fixtures. A stainless-steel mesh net, tested to well over the product safe working load (SWL), will – unlike cheaper sling options – both hold fixture mounting brackets in place, and prevent fixtures from scattering shrapnel across the drill floor upon impact, reducing risk of further harm to personnel.
Without an effective drops prevention solution, personnel who are ascending structures may drop handheld tools and equipment, such as two-way radios, portable gas detectors or multi-meters, and ultimately cause injury to personnel below. The number of reported incidents of dropped handheld tools is significant, and the true scale of this threat remains unclear, as many incidents and ‘near-misses’ are unlikely to be recorded.
A large percentage of dynamic dropped objects incidents are caused by operator error, pointing to an over-reliance on human proficiency when it comes to preventing handheld object drops. In almost all cases where an object falls from height, the safety of personnel is put at risk – and even if no personnel are injured, costs are commonly incurred for the replacement of lost or damaged tools, and as a result of associated project delays.
A proven solution to preventing handheld object drops is the use of a stainless steel mesh pouch that can secure items and be attached to an engineer working at height. A custom-designed pouch for use in extreme weather conditions fully encloses and tethers the item to the user, effectively preventing an incident from occurring.
On an oil rig, derrickhands spend up to 25% of their time on monkey boards high up in the rig’s derrick. If a derrickhand is undertaking equipment upkeep at height and drops a welding tool, engineers on the drill floor are at risk of being injured – an incident that would, of course, also shine a light on the company’s inability to comply with Working at Height legislation. Tools, shackles and maintenance equipment are all objects that may fall from unguarded catwalks, stairwells and walkways.
Often, cladding or fabric netting are installed on walkways to protect against the elements and act as a barrier against drops. However, wind strength and lack of ventilation can threaten the integrity of these types of barriers and the structures upon which they are mounted. Cladding is also difficult to inspect, prone to corrosion and time-consuming to maintain and paint – and, moreover, often needs to be custom designed, adding cost.
Lightweight technology such as mesh barrier systems, made from lightweight, high-grade plastic and built specifically for harsh environments on- and offshore, is seeing increasing adoption as a more versatile alternative to cladding. These barriers benefit from a universal attachment system and can be used as permanent or temporary solutions, saving time and money and allowing safety to be improved more efficiently.
Although the industry is significantly advancing its investment in health and safety for oil and gas personnel, the number of drops incidents is not substantially decreasing and there is room for improvement.
The good news is that technically robust and cost-effective means of mitigating the major dropped object risks are available. Moving forward, firms need to stay proactive in their adoption of these high-performance solutions, demonstrating a firm commitment to ‘self-regulate’ and stay on top of this threat to both personnel and reputation.
Mike Rice is with Dropsafe