The key to safer working

Jon Lawson

Allan Ralston discusses how technological innovation can unlock health & safety and operational benefits

Managing health and safety in the oil and gas industry has always been a complex challenge.

But economic pressures have created additional hurdles that need to be overcome.

The industry has been through a particularly challenging period since the beginning of the oil price downturn in 2014.

However, the multitude of risks present on sites, including the presence of combustible toxic atmospheres and machine hazards, still need to be managed as companies now have to meet health and safety requirements on tighter budgets.

We have seen an influx of new innovations into the sector with drones and mobile-operated technology becoming part of daily operations. In the new era of caution in the industry, could technological innovation be the solution?

What are the challenges in 2017?

Incidents on oil and gas sites have the potential to escalate quickly. The Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) UKCS Gas release data notes that 3,272 gas release incidents were reported between 2000 and 2015 – 198 of which occurred while a site was in shutdown. 68, more than a quarter, resulted in an ignition incident.

The potential number of risks associated with these incidents is considerable and the responsibility for site safety lies with operators.

Ensuring the safety of employees is of paramount importance to operators, so many have had to look for new solutions.

The HSE implemented the Fee for Intervention (FFI) cost recovery regime in 2012. The regulation allows for the HSE to recover costs for carrying out inspections on sites that are found to be in material breach of health and safety laws.

With an hourly rate of £129 and no cap with the amount billed being based on the hours spent on the investigation, unexpected costs can quickly become significant under the new legislation.

The additional cost and resources needed to address required health and safety regulations means it is becoming increasingly hard to meet regulatory requirements. Cost cutting can inadvertently cause individuals to cut corners and with many companies under greater financial strain, non-essential works have been delayed and in some cases, critical repair schedules have been pushed back.

Finding the balance between operational efficiency and maintaining high health and safety standards has become an even greater challenge in recent years.

The hot topic

Hot works are particularly challenging, especially in zoned areas where the potential risks are much greater with the underlying threat of the presence of explosive atmospheres. This can create an even bigger challenge when trying to limit the impact on operations.

Typical precautions taken to limit the potential outbreak of fire or an explosion during any maintenance activity include using protective guards, having fire extinguishing and gas detection equipment nearby, and removing nearby combustible materials. The location of work can also have the added challenge of limited accessibility or hostile conditions, such as adverse weather considerations.

As a result, conducting routine maintenance works that involve extremely high temperatures can lead to costly full or partial shutdowns being the only viable option. Shutdowns often result in many millions of pounds of lost revenues and have great impact on production. The latest technology and innovative solutions can provide a cost-effective alternative that limits the impact on production. There is potential for the industry to be sustained and exceed expectations through innovation.

Innovation as a solution

There has been a notable shift in attitudes towards investing in innovation as a long-term cost-saving measure rather than a short-term expense.

We are seeing new innovations entering the oil and gas sector at a rapid rate, from drones being used to carry out live asset inspections as an early detect system to assess any maintenance requirements, to using wearable technology to keep track of personnel in the field, to the use of apps to maximise all areas of safety and monitoring. Innovative solutions can also have the additional benefit of considerable monetary and operational efficiencies.

Habitats, which are pressurised modular flexible enclosures with integral monitoring and control systems, allow for ‘hot’ work to be completed in a safe environment. Sparks and molten material created as a by-product from hot work can be dispersed up to 35ft from where work is taking place. In the oil and gas industry, these risks are greatly magnified due to the frequent presence of dangerous gases and other combustibles. Safehouse pioneered the concept of habitats 15 years ago and has saved 1,400 shutdown days, saving its clients approximately £500million in revenue.

Safehouse was recently involved in a life extension project at the Karratha gas plant, located north of Perth, Australia. The client needed maintenance work to take place without impacting on operations.

The site was exposed to extreme high temperatures with the additional challenge of the presence of numerous hazardous gases. Using the modular, pressurised Safehouse habitat, works were completed within the allocated time frame with only 15 hours of partial shutdown time needed during the 24-month project. Using an innovative solution, the company could continue to operate, improve overall productivity, ensure the safety of its staff and deliver considerable cost savings in the long term.

The oil and gas industry has proved its resilience following the downturn. Although there has been recovery in recent years, many remain cautious but optimistic in their approach for the future. We are facing ‘lower for longer’, or as KPMG’s global head of energy Regina Mayor said at this year’s OTC event, “lower forever”.

And that demands new thinking. Health and safety remains a key priority and innovative solutions provide an opportunity for operators to strike a balance between keeping site personnel safe and managing productivity.

The downturn has made the challenge even greater. However, many in the industry have seen this as an opportunity and have developed smart solutions to navigate some of the most complex issues in a cost effective manner. Technology has the potential to deliver financial performance and transformational operational benefits and the industry has a unique opportunity to unlock the potential of innovation.

Safer hot work for FPSO

One recent application of Safehouse technology was for a floating production storage vessel (FPSO) at the Frade field in Brazil. As part of a requirement from the Brazilian National Petroleum Agency (ANP), the operator had to install two new skids over existing modules in the middle of the Frade FPSO. The project involved multiple hot work applications including welding and grinding, for the installation of these new structures on top of the existing one.

The project plan was to deliver the installation in three phases. The first was to install a longitudinal reinforcement beam, so that the modules would have the appropriate strength to withstand the extra load from the new skids. The second and third phases were the installation of the skids.

The workscope required the delivery of two habitats, which were then re-built onboard 27 times. This ensured maximum efficiency all round, and safe enclosure of the hazardous work as required for completion of the hot work.

During phases two and three, the Safehouse habitats had to be built as quickly as possible, with the skid suspended by the crane, to enable a weld point to hold it in place after the crane release. Then the remaining welding work could be completed. The habitats were operated simultaneously, embracing the legs of the new skids. The gas sensing modules were located on the main deck.

The project was completed as planned with Safehouse technicians onboard a total of 43 days. As a result, the firm delivered 640 safe man hours with all hot work completed safely with production continuing as usual and no need for shutdown.

Allan Ralston is director at Safehouse.

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