Spotlight on North Sea Safety

22 December 2009 (Last Updated December 22nd, 2009 18:30)

At the close of a year that saw a tragic helicopter accident in the North Sea, the spotlight is now on ensuring safety. Ozge Ibrahim provides an update on how the industry is working to overcome these challenges.

Spotlight on North Sea Safety

Two years ago the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK published the findings of a three-year investigation of nearly 100 offshore installations. The results revealed that although significant improvements had been made, more work to ensure safety was necessary. The (key progress) KP3 report, which focused specifically on asset integrity in terms of safety, highlighted high levels of cooperation from the oil and gas sector to help achieve the goal of making the UK continental shelf the safest offshore sector by 2010.

A statement from the report said: "In the light of the findings from the KP3 report, asset integrity will continue to be one of the main priorities for HSE's offshore division in 2008 and for the forseeable future, but it must also be clear that it is for the industry itself to show leadership and face up to its responsibility."

The report found that the majority of senior managers were not making adequate use of integrity management data and not giving ongoing maintenance sufficient priority. The report also found that some energy companies needed better key indicators of performance available at senior management levels to help focus resources.

Two years on from the report findings, Oil and Gas UK's health and safety director Robert Paterson speaks exclusively to offshore-technology.com about the work his organisation is doing to counter possible risks from new helicopter technology to staying on top of the threat posed by swine flu.

The North Sea today

The Piper Alpha North Sea disaster in 1988 led to an overhaul of safety measures both in the North Sea and beyond. Energy companies began conducting immediate and wide-ranging assessments of their installations and asset integrity management systems, according to Oil and Gas UK.

"Although significant improvements have been made, more work to ensure safety is necessary."

According to the trade organisation, every offshore operator reviewed its strategies and invested £1bn in safety measures, both from a hardware and industry culture point of view. These included stepping up to asset integrity management by way of improvement to 'permit to work' management systems, relocation of some pipeline emergency shutdown valves, installation of subsea pipeline isolations and mitigation of smoke hazards.

Two years on from the HSE report, asset integrity is still an important part of maintaining safety in the harsh North Sea environment. "The KP3 report addressed the most important areas - we can't afford to take our eye off that particular ball," says Paterson, who also reports that said Oil and Gas UK is currently continuing to monitor asset integrity by encouraging member companies to share good practices.

Air safety

Sharing good practice covers a broad range or areas, one of which is air safety, which has become a particularly important area of focus following a tragic accident in the North Sea earlier this year.

On 1 April, the Eurocopter AS332L2 Super Puma came down about 11 miles north-east of Peterhead, Aberdeenshire. The helicopter was returning from the BP Miller Platform in the Miller Field in the North Sea, when it crashed, killing all 16 men on board. A report issued in July by the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) claimed the 'inappropriate diagnosis' of a debris particle may have lead to the failed gearbox not being replaced before the crash. The AAIB issued a safety
recommendation calling on the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Eurocopter to urgently review the design, operational life and inspection processes of the planet gears to minimise the potential of cracks leading to failure during the service life of the gears. The EASA said significant work has already been carried out on these issues.

Paterson says his organisation is now taking 'huge strides forward in terms of monitoring where helicopters are when they fly offshore', installing equipment that enables them to follow helicopters all the way out to the installation. Also, earlier this month, helicopter task group chairman Bob Keiller told the Aberdeen Evening Express newspaper that flights in the North Sea are now safer than ever. He did also admit, however, that 'more needs to be done to reduce risks of mechanical problems and improving a pilot's ability to fly safely, things such as better helideck lighting'.

But while technology can be closely monitored and accident rates subsequently kept to a minimum, those working on oil platforms are vulnerable to threats that are much harder to control.

Flu fear

Following an outbreak of swine flu or H1N1 in Mexico earlier in 2009, there were fears that oil production in key oil-producing countries could be shut down. The outbreak in Mexico threatened to cripple the Mexican oil industry, which pumps around 2.7 million barrels of oil a day, prompting Mexican oil company Pemex to take immediate preventative measures to stop the spread of the virus, including shutting off air conditioning in administrative offices and sending home employees with flu symptoms to help keep staff healthy.

"Asset integrity is still an important part of maintaining safety in the harsh North Sea environment."

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised the level of swine flu to 'pandemic' level shortly after the outbreak of the virus in Mexico, oil companies moved fast to ensure staff on oil platforms were protected as much as possible. Norwegian authorities announced that helicopter pilots had to wear surgical masks when transporting passengers infected with swine flu. The precautionary mobilisation effort in Norway was in line with actions taken across the world, including countries in Europe where swine flu was spreading fast. The WHO has also recently announced that avian influenza, which made headlines when it hit Hong Kong and China a few years back, still remains a threat. The biggest potential danger now is that H1N1 could combine with the bird flu virus (H5N1), 'producing a virus that is as deadly as the former and as contagious as the latter', according to a statement by the WHO.

Combined with harsh weather conditions in the North Sea, a possible pandemic virus of any description could bring oil and gas production in the region to a standstill by infecting key staff and transport personnel.

Paterson says that his organisation will ensure there is an 'appropriate response' in place should there be a flu pandemic of any kind. This includes working with oil companies with operations in the North Sea, who are currently drawing up their own tailored emergency plans, which include helicopter pilots being vaccinated before the end of the year. Following this, offshore staff will also be offered vaccinations. It remains to be seen whether swine flu will hit large parts of the world again as it did earlier in the year. The threat of pandemic viruses, together with the risk of air accidents, along with the day-to day-challenges of working with complex technology in often challenging weather conditions, represents the biggest challenges facing those who plan the safety of offshore oil workers, as well as the workers themselves.