By Roger Catherall, director, Reflex Marine

Millions of crew transfers take place each year and whether they are achieved by boat or helicopter, crew transfer remains one of the areas of greatest risk in offshore operations.

Every year, similar numbers of personnel are transferred by crane as by helicopter. In many areas of the world, crane transfer is used as the primary means of crew change. In other areas, while not routinely used for crew change, its role in maintenance, construction, inspections and other specialist operations is key to ensuring that these activities are carried out in a timely and economic manner. In all offshore operations around the world, crane transfers provide an invaluable emergency tool for medi-vacs, case-vacs, evacuation and precautionary down-manning (in, for example, a well control emergency).

It is very difficult to build up an accurate picture of the risks involved in crane transfers, simply because there is very limited data collated on the subject. Annual reports are published by the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) detailing statistics relating to helicopter transfers, for example, number of passengers transferred, incident trends over time, fatality figures and average transfer duration. By contrast, data collation relating to crane transfers rarely happens at a company level, and not at all industry-wide. This is despite the fact that they perform the same function – moving people safely.

Around the world, the most common piece of equipment used in conjunction with a crane for transferring personnel is the traditional rope basket. Reflex Marine, has collated information on injuries and fatalities that have occurred within the industry during crane transfers, the vast majority of which occurred while using a traditional rope basket. This information is gathered from many public sources (MMS, UK HSE and NPD) and the company now has what is probably the largest publicly available database of crane transfer incidents in the world. Regrettably serious incidents continue to blight the industry – there were three fatalities during rope basket transfers in December 2005 alone – but the lack of a co-ordinated recording body limits the industry’s awareness of them. There is anecdotal evidence of many more incidents that have never been officially recorded. A co-ordinated approach to recording and collating data would provide a far clearer picture of the risks involved in crane transfer and would also enable an accurate comparison to be made with helicopter transfers.

This lack of coherent data leads to two common misconceptions about crane transfers – either 1) they are considered to be low risk and limited resources and emphasis are given to these operations, or 2) they are considered such a high risk that they are not carried out at all. In reality, both of these conclusions are flawed. With regard to the former position, as indicated, incidents and fatalities continue to occur during basket transfers and a minimal investment of capital and resources would result in a substantially safer method of transfer. Looking at the latter position, personnel transfer solutions introduced in recent years substantially reduce the risks.

In the 1990’s Reflex Marine developed the Frog Personnel Transfer Capsule which set a new benchmark for the industry in terms of design, operating envelope and product support. The Frog was subjected to a testing and verification programme unprecedented in the industry and has built up an impressive track record for safe transfer operations.

While helicopter transfers are covered by standards for equipment design, manufacture, training and procedures, there are no equivalent industry standards regulating crane transfers. It is left to the individual company or, often, even the individual offshore operation to decide policy. Analysis of the incident data collected by Reflex shows that in 80% of incidents that resulted in injuries, equipment design was a factor, and that crane operator error and training were factors in over60% of incidents. In all cases that resulted in fatalities, planning and preparation was questionable. These statistics indicate that an industry-accepted standard for crane transfers, covering equipment design (to include safe operating envelope), verification, operational planning & preparation and the competence of key personnel would result in major improvements.

The first step in resolving a problem is to give it clear definition – the monitoring of transfer activity would be a simple, low-cost initiative that would bring enormous benefits to the offshore industry. The consistent reporting of incidents would allow a rational approach to the management of risks and would enable informed decisions to be made about transfer operations. Uniform standards would also greatly reduce the frequency of incidents. The industry should expect and insist that suppliers of transfer equipment demonstrate categorically that their equipment is ‘fit for the purpose’.

There is an excellent opportunity to reduce the risks associated with crane transfers, reduce the number of incidents that occur and increase the safety of personnel offshore. What is more, this would only require a fraction of the resources and industry focus currently given to helicopter transfers. The time is right to start closing the gap!

About the author:

Roger Catherall is a director and co-founder of Reflex Marine Ltd.

Following an early spell in accountancy he switched to engineering. After graduating as a mining engineer from the Camborne School of Mines he moved into the oil and gas business in Aberdeen, where he also gained a Masters in Business Administration.

Over the past 25 years Roger has consistently been at the sharp end of the introduction of new technologies including downhole drilling, reservoir monitoring, expandables and intelligent completions. He has held senior sales and marketing management positions with 4 major service companies and served terms in the Middle East, South East Asia and West Africa.