Oil and Gas Drilling Operations: Worker Safety

Capital investment in the oil and gas drilling and exploration industries has been on the rise in the U.S. and globally, presaging a positive outlook for continued industry growth over the coming years. Whether located on or offshore, drilling rigs and operations pose inherent risks to workers, who must cope with extremely harsh and demanding environmental conditions.

At sea, risks include storms and inclement weather, humidity, strong winds, tides and sun exposure, as well as relative isolation for extended periods of time. On land, workers may experience excessive heat and humidity or, at the opposite extreme, cold temperatures and strong winds. In both locations, long shifts, arduous labor, wet, slippery work surfaces and uneven terrain may create potentially hazardous conditions under foot that may result in falls and injuries. In addition, constant exposure to excessive noise is fatiguing and working with heavy equipment daily may lead to safety lapses that result in both minor and major threats to life safety and health.

To avoid―or at least minimize―potential accidents, injuries and fatalities on oil rigs, proper safety training, safety audits and drills, and a range of personal protective equipment (PPE) is required. Well-managed oil exploration and drilling companies worldwide have proven over the years that unexpected accidents, injuries and loss of life can be significantly reduced through the implementation of current safety best practices, site engineering modifications, improved safety equipment, and worker training/awareness programs.

Assessing the Risk Factors
Building a safer and more secure worksite by eliminating hazards wherever possible sets the stage for preventing mistakes and accidents before they occur. A number of industry associations—including the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA), the global oil and gas industry association for environmental and social issues, and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP)—provide helpful guidelines and practical information on best practices for protecting workers and preventing accidents, injuries, on-the-job illness and fatalities.

Data compiled by IOGP cite a number of contributing factors in oil and gas global incident reports, and almost all such contributing factors are preventable.  These include:

·   Inadequate hazard identification or risk assessment
·   Inadequate worker training to ensure competence and safe practices
·   Inadequate or defective guards or protective barriers
·   Inadequate or defective PPE, or PPE not used or used improperly
·   Improper use of tools, equipment, materials, or products
·   Inadequate or defective warning systems and safety devices
·   Servicing of energized equipment without adequate energy isolation  

Regular safety audits at oil and gas rig sites are also essential. Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and IOGP provide fact sheets and a variety of tools for performing on-site safety audits. The IOGP identifies elements essential to efficient safety management, including operating procedures and safe work practices, mechanical integrity, personnel training and performance, emergency planning and response. Similarly, some larger global distributors of safety gear also offer practical and effective safety management audit tools, checklists, videos and technical information. The payoff for the time and expense invested in these tools and strategies is worthwhile―namely, averting incidents and accidents before they happen.

Best Practices and Safety Equipment Key to Reducing Risk
There are many tools and resources available to help oil and gas operations stay in compliance and protect employees from hazardous conditions on every type of drilling rig, whether on or offshore.  Depending on the location, some of the key areas that management should address include:

·   Machine Protection Accidents and injuries resulting from improper handling and/or maintenance of energized or mechanical equipment can be greatly reduced by proper training of responsible personnel, electrical surge protection if applicable, regular equipment checks and maintenance, and appropriate lockout/tagout tools and procedures.
·   Lighting Safety and Safety Signage Use of reliable lighting in low light or confined areas and installation of highly visible, easy-to-read customized safety signage helps workers perform their jobs better and warns them of potential hazards.
·   Fall Protection Examination of work surfaces and utilization of materials and products can help rig workers better navigate when working in wet, slippery conditions or performing tasks in elevated areas or on uneven terrain. 
·   Worker Identification Products Wearable ID tags and routine shift check-in/check-out procedures can be implemented to let supervisors and emergency responders know the location of every worker on the rig at all times.  This can be especially critical on offshore rigs where worker risks include falls from the operational platform into the sea.
·   Adequate Productivity and Safety Tool Boxes As in every industrial site, oil and gas rig workers may need to have ready access to tool boxes equipped with whatever is needed to tackle repairs and routine maintenance jobs.  Depending on the location, this may include electrical parts, material handling aids, plumbing components, hand tools, power tools and welding gear.
·   Emergency Preparedness A detailed and effective emergency response plan must be formulated for every oil and gas drilling site, with specifics dependent upon the rig’s location and layout.  An effective plan should always include the ready availability of appropriate emergency and rescue equipment (e.g., breathing apparatus, marine rescue equipment, life preservers), as well as a program for training and drilling of all supervisors and workers in emergency escape and rescue procedures.

As virtually all successful companies in the industry have learned over the past decades, safer working environments typically lead to more productive and profitable drilling operations and higher employee morale and retention.  There is no doubt that taking a holistic, multi-tiered approach towards improving engineering controls, operational systems and procedures, worker safety education and safe work practice is a sound business investment that pays dividends in terms of long-term success.

1.   Health and Safety Performance Indicators — 2011 data. Health performance indicators. IPIECA/IOGP Report No. 201. October 2012.
2.   Improving Social and Environmental Performance. Good practice guidance for the oil and gas industry. IPIECA 2012.
3.   IOGP. Asset integrity the key to managing major incident risks. Report No. 415. December 2008.
4.   BP. BP Statistical Review of World Energy. June 2012. bp.com/statisticalreview
5.   IPIECA/IOGP Fitness to work. Guidance for company and contractor health, HSE and HR professionals. IOGP Report No. 47. 2011.
6.   IPIECA/IOGP. Managing health for field operations in oil and gas activities. IOGP Report No. 343. October 2011.

Posted in: Drilling Rig Safety, Oil Rig Safety, Oil And Gas Industry, Oil Field Operations, Petrochemical, Safety Risks.