Lifting gear

Adam Leach: What extra challenges does the offshore environment present?

Geoff Holden: In the offshore and subsea sectors, the additional risk factors that must be considered are wide ranging and not always immediately obvious. The combination of salt water and air that is present in locations such as splash zones can clearly lead to accelerated corrosion of the component parts of lifting equipment, but this is far from the whole story. Proximity to inflammable materials, flare stacks or hot condensate lines, temperatures outside the 0°to 25°C range, exposure to chemicals and acidic environments, such as drilling muds in the rig floor area, restricted working space and the additional dynamic loads imposed on lifting equipment by the movement of vessels and/or installations can all have a detrimental effect on the integrity of lifting devices employed offshore.

AL: How often is equipment serviced and tested to ensure that it is up to scratch?

GH: In the UK, the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) require that, once in service, equipment should be subject to a thorough examination by a competent person every six months for equipment that is used for lifting people and for lifting accessories, and every 12 months for other lifting equipment.

However, in 2002, in response to high accident rates in the industry, LEEA was invited by the HSE Offshore Division to publish a Code of Practice specifically designed to support the safe use of hand chain blocks and lever hoists offshore. In light of the additional challenges posed by the offshore environment, this recommends that every block or hoist destined for an offshore or subsea application should be thoroughly examined before first use, including a light load test and a proof load test. Furthermore, once the equipment is in-service, thorough examinations should be conducted at intervals no longer than every six months.

However, it is important that employers do not rely exclusively on thorough examinations to ensure that overhead lifting equipment is safe to use. Typically it is vulnerable to damage each and every time it is used. It is therefore vital that thorough examinations are supplemented by frequent in-service inspections by staff trained to identify potential problems, and with the authority and confidence to withdraw from service any item that gives rise for concern.

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For much of the equipment involved this need not be a time consuming task – typically a visual check supplemented by a simple operational test. As well as providing the training necessary to spot problems, it is equally vital that a ‘no blame’ culture is encouraged, ensuring that staff feel free to report problems without fear of repercussions.

AL: How have training methods progressed in recent times?

GH: Reflecting the fact that most accidents are the result of failures in planning, often compounded by the use of inadequately trained staff, LOLER correctly emphasises the ‘human factor’ and the need to use competent personnel for all aspects of overhead lifting operations. For example, the test, examination and maintenance of overhead lifting equipment are specialist tasks requiring specialist skills.

LEEA’s Diploma qualification is the industry-recognised qualification for engineers undertaking this safety critical role, and the association offers a range of distance learning and practical courses to help prepare candidates. Furthermore, to help employers ensure that only appropriately qualified staff are permitted to work on lifting equipment, LEEA operates the Team card registration and identity scheme. Under this, TEAM cards are issued to employees of member companies that have passed the diploma. It is supplemented by a logbook detailing relevant work experience.

To help employers identify good quality training provision for end users of lifting equipment, LEEA also runs an accredited training scheme for member companies. Under this scheme, only LEEA member companies that meet rigorous standards are able to display the LEEA Accredited Training Company logo, and offer a range of independently verified courses.

AL: What are the common causes of faults or damage to lifting equipment?

"LOLER correctly emphasises the ‘human factor’ and the need to use competent personnel for all aspects of overhead lifting operations."

GH: One of the most common themes of incidents in the offshore sector is the use of general purpose lifting devices rather than equipment designed specifically for offshore conditions. When specifying equipment it is vital that buyers explain clearly the conditions that the lifting equipment will be used in.

With hand chain blocks and lever hoists in particular, a number of characteristics must always be borne in mind. Alongside corrosion, a lack of lubrication, or contamination of brake components with lubricants, will compromise both their safety and efficiency. Also frequently overlooked is the fact that these devices have a minimum as well as a maximum safe working load (SWL). Their brake mechanisms rely on sufficient torque being generated by the load lifted. The minimum safe load is generally accepted as 5% of the SWL, but the LEEA recommends allowing an additional safety margin, so it is no less than 10%.

As already mentioned, all equipment must be subject to a robust program of thorough examination and in-service inspection, as well as maintenance in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. In this respect, it is important for employers to bear in mind that equipment can deteriorate just as quickly in storage as in use. Particular attention should be paid to equipment that is returned to stores wet or contaminated, with care taken to clean, dry and lubricate it effectively. Similarly, it should always be remembered that equipment which leaves an onshore workshop in good condition may not arrive at an offshore destination in the same state.

AL: Have there been any significant changes to the regulatory environment that surrounds offshore lifting technology?

GH: In the UK, the LOLER have been in place since the 1990s, and have emerged from the Coalition Government’s review of health and safety legislation unchanged. A review of the Approved Code of Practice (Acop) that accompanies LOLER is currently underway, but it is likely to be some time before this is complete. Not only is LOLER well-established in the UK, it has been widely adopted as ‘best practice’ by companies working in other parts of the world that lack lifting-specific legislation, reflecting the fact it is generally regarded as a sensible and effective basis for safe and efficient overhead lifting.

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