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August 24, 2021

Why oil and gas companies won’t require vaccines for offshore work (yet)

Technology and finance leaders have told their workers: no jab, no job, but oil companies are unlikely to adopt similar policies.

By Matthew Farmer

Offshore crews know that illness can spread quickly. A relatively small, isolated group working in close proximity provides ideal conditions for any illness, from mild fevers to Covid-19.

Vaccination can control this risk, just as other systems control the risk of fire, blowouts, and other offshore hazards. Widespread vaccination of a particular workforce can also save companies on lost work hours. Perhaps more than in onshore life, it can also increase staff safety and offer peace of mind.

However, vaccination remains a personal choice, with the right to refuse protected by human rights conventions. Democratic governments and companies have no right to insist on vaccination, but also have no obligation to employ those who refuse. Increasingly, employers ask staff to declare their vaccination status, smashing the traditional idea that this constitutes private health information.

International technology companies have quickly made their stance clear. Microsoft has one of the strictest policies, saying all employees, vendors, and guests must receive vaccination. With remote working now a core part of their strategy, Facebook and Google have made vaccines necessary for on-site work. 

Ironically, financial companies have often adopted approaches that rely on reporting. BlackRock has told all employees to report their vaccination status, regardless of their work location. Goldman Sachs has welcomed unvaccinated employees back, under the condition that they wear masks and undergo weekly testing as a condition of employment.

These industries hold similar power to that of oil and gas, but industry leaders in the sector seem to have taken a different approach.

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What are the vaccination policies of big oil companies?

Several oil and gas companies have facilitated vaccination among their workforces. Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, and Shell have all said they have an ongoing vaccination program for workers.

Often, offshore workers benefit from their status as “essential workers”, allowing them priority access to vaccines in some territories. For example, in the Philippines, workers going to sea within 90 days can receive a priority jab.

The largest national oil company, Saudi Aramco, tells us it will follow the guidance of the Saudi Ministry of Health. In May, the country’s leadership announced that citizens would require proof of vaccination to use public transport or enter businesses. The country is looking toward a move away from working from home, with some government employees returning to workplaces from the end of August.

A Saudi Aramco spokesperson tells us: “The company’s ongoing vaccination program, which commenced in February, provides vaccines to its employees and their dependents, in collaboration with its medical partner.”

In the US, President Biden has mandated that all federal government employees should receive vaccination to continue their jobs. The country’s largest oil and gas company, ExxonMobil, acquired vaccinations because of its essential service status. A spokesperson tells us: “Vaccine distribution will be in compliance with local health authority requirements and government-established prioritisation protocols.

“Vaccine distribution will be prioritised to those that have critical roles in maintaining energy delivery and business continuity, including our health care providers, operations personnel, emergency responders, and select management positions critical to business continuity.

“We continue to monitor the external environment, guidance from health organisations and the effectiveness of our mitigation efforts, and make adjustments if and when they are needed.”

The company also said it was tracking cases among its workforce and taking “the necessary precautions” to protect its workers.

Shell has said that it will facilitate vaccination at work, and encourage employees to receive vaccines but does not expect them to as a condition of employment.

While both Eni and BP support vaccination education efforts, neither have stated their vaccination policy. 

How oil and gas vaccination compares to the global response

One year after the Sputnik V vaccine completed its phase three trials, global vaccination has progressed slowly.

Worldwide, only 15% of people have received full vaccinations at time of writing. According to the vaccination tracker of sister site Pharmaceutical Technology, around 0.8% of the global population achieves full vaccination daily. Moreover, while vaccination has progressed rapidly in richer nations, vaccines remain scarce in many oil-rich provinces.

For example despite early approval, Russia has only fully vaccinated approximately 17% of its citizens. Indonesia has vaccinated only 7.5% of its population, making vaccination policy difficult for companies operating in its waters.

Even well-vaccinated nations remain far from the critical point of “herd immunity”. At this point, the vaccinated population would effectively prevent wider spread of the virus, isolating it within small communities where it would eventually die out. The herd immunity threshold lies at approximately 80% vaccination, far from present levels.

Assuming that vaccination maintains its current rate, which remains unlikely, global average herd immunity would arrive around the end of October. Despite the length of time taken to reach current vaccination levels, herd immunity remains far from the thoughts of larger companies, especially when they cannot compel employees to take the vaccine.

Ultimately, this has hindered multinational companies in attempting to enforce any sort of coherent vaccination policy across their global operations.

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