Taking Care Of Business: Protecting Personnel

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Mike Rice discusses tackling human error in oil & gas drops prevention

Oil & gas personnel are highly trained and diligent, but occasionally, even the most experienced personnel can make an oversight during daily operations. In this industry, however, the consequences of a potential error can sometimes be severe, incurring significant costs in lost production, environmental harm, damaged equipment or injury to personnel. This can, in turn, risk the hard-won reputations built up by energy companies over decades.

Dropped objects, or drops, are a key example of where tackling human error can make a substantial difference to safety. Drops occur when an object, such as a tool or fitting, falls due to being knocked, dropped or under its own weight, striking personnel or equipment. DROPS data shows that around two-thirds of drops are ultimately due to human error.

Drops prevention aims to significantly reduce the likelihood of certain errors occurring. Key to this is educating personnel, taking steps to improve processes, and using technology to take humans out of the equation where possible.

There are four key tools, drawn from drops prevention, that oil & gas operators can use to mitigate human error and make their operations safer.

Apply The Hierarchy Of Controls

The hierarchy of controls is used by health and safety professionals to prioritise key control measures taken to mitigate and prevent incidents. In drops prevention, the hierarchy of controls is used first to reduce the possibility of drops occurring (elimination), and secondly, to reduce the impact of drops (mitigation).

There are five tiers of the hierarchy of controls, the first being elimination. This means removing the risk entirely – which includes identifying unnecessary operations and taking steps to minimise them. For example, lifting manoeuvres can be reduced by combining them where possible. Additionally, facilities can be designed to reduce the number of lifting operations needed.

Substitution is the second tier. Sometimes, removing a risk isn’t possible. In such cases, the hazard should be substituted with a less dangerous alternative. Fewer heavy lights could be used on a rig, for example.

The third tier is engineering controls. This includes measures taken to place physical barriers between risk areas and personnel. One example is safety securing nets that enclose fittings such as CCTV cameras to prevent them falling, should their fixtures come loose. Another is fitting solid barriers onto railings to prevent tools and other drops from falling through the gaps.

Administrative controls is the fourth tier. Examples of administrative controls to mitigate drops include no-go zones and toolbox talks, enforcing procedures and reducing human error.

The final tier is PPE. This is the last line of defence against drops, helping to minimise serious injuries and fatalities if personnel are struck by a falling object.

Education Is Key

Building a robust drops prevention culture is a key step in reducing human error. This entails continuous education and knowledge sharing throughout the sector – including key safety systems such as the hierarchy of controls. The oil & gas sector is already among the most advanced industries in this regard, but there is always more work to be done to ensure that drops prevention best practices remain responsive to changing operational conditions.

By sharing the latest DROPS bulletins and including recent incident reports in toolbox talks, HSE managers can ensure that drops prevention is always on the agenda at their facilities, helping to keep the risk front of mind for frontline personnel. More widely, an awareness of drops at all levels of the supply chain, from facility design to transportation, reduces the risk of drops due to human error.

Engineer Human Error Out

Even the most overlooked elements of a rig worker’s daily routine can be re-examined to identify opportunities to reduce human error. Two examples are tooling and carabiners.

On an oil & gas rig, personnel occasionally need to work at height to carry out essential maintenance operations on derricks and raised working platforms. Using tools that have been designed for working at height is essential. Modifying normal tools can increase the risk of drops and human error, as they may inadvertently break apart, slip from grasp or be knocked through gaps.

Personnel can reduce the risk of human error by ensuring that they always tether tools to a workbelt or toolbag, reducing the risk of accidentally misplacing a tool. Tools should also be kept in a central storage box when not in use and colour coded to support more accurate housekeeping.

The carabiner, used in drops prevention to secure nets to attachment points, has recently undergone a significant redesign to reduce human error. Traditional carabiners are difficult to operate one handed, can be opened be accident due to wire snags and do not autolock – meaning that personnel have to repeatedly unscrew and rescrew the carabiner.

In harsh offshore environments, when using bulky protective gloves in cold weather, the task quickly becomes frustrating. The latest best practice drops prevention carabiners are therefore designed to allow single handed operation, with a triple action open mechanism and autolocking clasp.

Embrace Digitalisation

An overreliance on automated systems or digital technologies can increase risks during operations due to software glitches and the tendency to ‘autopilot’ during computerised tasks.

In drops prevention, however, using the latest digitally integrated solutions with RFID tags adds an extra layer of security, empowering maintenance and inspection teams to follow a foolproof, easily validated process when carrying out routine tasks. These new digital tools are increasingly opening up new ways of working, enabling global teams to operate efficiently and safely.

Ultimately, there is no single fail-safe solution to reduce human error in oil & gas. As the drops prevention examples above show, the key is to combine procedural, engineering and cultural measures to reduce the scope for human error – by eliminating risk at all levels of the sector.

Mike Rice is commercial director at Dropsafe

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