The unpredictable nature of oil exploration

Published: 07th Nov 2012

As oil and gas drilling rigs tend to be located in remote locations onshore and platforms offshore, it is vitally important that workers are fully prepared to deal with an emergency and the consequences of it.

The combination of heavy equipment, high seas, desert, jungle and/or remote locations and long work hours makes drilling for oil and gas one of the most dangerous professions in the world.

From the deafening noise of the machinery to the risk of falling in an open pit of oily water and drilling fluid, an oil rig is a high risk, unpredictable and isolated workplace where almost everything is combustible.

Simply by walking on the drilling floor a worker can easily slip on the mud that has accumulated, causing a serious injury. Though it can be difficult maintaining a mud-free drill floor during the drilling process, non-skid paint and designated walkways can help reduce the risk of slip and trip hazards.

Any practise of modifying the workplace by removing handrails and chains that protect drilling rig workers from fall hazards should be strongly discouraged, as it is unacceptable for any company. These modifications increase the risk of serious injury.

The danger of harsh offshore environments can also be fatal as oil and gas workers are expected to operate heavy machinery 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whatever the weather, shutting down a platform is not usually an option, but you need to consider the safe working practises of your people when the weather becomes even more inclement than normal.

Every piece of significant equipment on an oil rig or platform has to be colour coded to signify that it has been tested recently and is safe to use.

As oil companies aim to reach new depths in deeper waters, the danger of using complex equipment can pose a risk as the technology used to reach the sea floor will have potential weak points.

Bear in mind, too, that in the event of an emergency when watertight escape pods are lowered to seat up to ten people at a time, it can take hours for emergency responders to arrive at the platform.


As oil is highly combustible, any oil operation involves serious risks of explosion. A 1988 catastrophe on the Piper Alpha left 168 workers dead. While such events are not common, the risk is always present.

Oil drilling rigs are also subject to explosions and other threats due to terrorism. These platforms, especially those in the Middle East, require new levels of security since the first Gulf War in 1991. The deliberate burning of oil wells after that war underscores how the flammable nature of oil is attractive to terrorists and others with political motivations. The threats were serious enough to shut down oil rigs off Nigeria in 2006 after many workers were kidnapped.


Many jobs on oil sites are exceptionally demanding, and the physical strain on the workers often leads to injuries. According to a May 2008 article in the Vancouver Sun, the oil industry of British Columbia logged 122,000 lost work days due to worker injury, with $57 million in claims during a five year period in the 2000s.

Common injuries include falling and overexertion. On average, these injuries are more severe than those incurred by workers in other industries. Thus, workers on oil and gas sites take much longer to recover.

Currently, this is one of the world's largest and most important industries, and it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Oil provides more than 80% of the world’s transport fuel needs and accounts for about 50% of the world’s energy needs. The modern world runs on oil.

Right now, there are more than 5,000 companies around the world drilling for oil and gas. Most of their installations are located in oil rich parts of the world: the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Nigeria.

Learning from Deepwater Horizon

Oil rigs still operate on basic principles of ‘drill goes in the ground and oil comes out’, but there are many steps in the process, and many machines and equipment used. All of those steps, machines and parts increase the number of hazards workers can face.

Very recently, on July 24, 2012, the US Government board investigating the April 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 people and sent 200 million gallons of oil spilling into the ocean, found that BP had neglected to focus on the larger systemic hazards of the oil drilling process, while concentrating instead on the smaller detail of personal worker safety, such as PPE and clothing.

While individual personal safety is vitally important, the maintenance of equipment and assets is equally vital and crucial to avoiding accidents.

In the Deepwater Horizon rig, BP had the lease on the well, but the drilling rig was owned and operated by another company, Transocean. In this case the contractor-owner split made a difference in major accident prevention with the oil disaster, the US Chemical Safety Board concluded in a presentation made in a hearing in Houston Texas.

The board's presentation said there is a difference between worker safety and making sure the entire rig and well are safe, and that's where owner BP and rig operator Transocean were "inadequate."

The same lack of focus on the bigger picture of safety bore an eerie resemblance to what the safety board found in its investigation of a 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 people, safety board investigator Cheryl MacKenzie said. That federal oil spill commission report, co-chaired by Graham and former EPA chief William Reilly, found similar problems.

Donald Winter, former Navy Secretary and engineering professor said that reducing lost time for workers and making sure they wear the right kind of boot is important, but that really doesn't have much to do with system safety.

Among the critical mistakes that Winter highlighted was the decision to displace the drilling mud with sea water, despite insufficient testing of the cement intended to secure the Macondo well between the drilling and production phases. The cement’s failure led directly to the release of combustible gas, which enveloped the drill rig in low wind conditions, and, combined with a questionable venting method, made ignition “all but inevitable.”

“There are ways to remediate a bad cement job if you do sufficient testing to find out about it,” Winter said. Instead, after multiple negative pressure tests were deemed inconclusive, “they effectively redesigned success to be consistent with the results they observed.”

The geology of the reservoir formation, which encompassed multiple zones of varying pore pressure and fracture gradients, posed significant challenges to the drilling team, he noted, and the drilling approach that was selected failed to provide adequate margins of safety.

The companies involved were surprised by some of the risks and the inability of safety devices such as the blowout preventer to avoid ultimate disaster. The blowout preventer was neither designed nor tested for the dynamic conditions that existed, and the companies involved shouldn’t have counted on it working, he said. “They are good devices, but not fail-safe.”

Winter and the committee also faulted regulators for ineffectively addressing the risks of the well.

According to their final report, “Neither the companies involved nor the regulatory community made effective use of real-time data analysis, information on precursor incidents or near misses, or lessons learned in the Gulf of Mexico and worldwide to adjust practises and standards appropriately.”

US Chemical Safety Board Chairperson Dr Rafael Moure-Eraso illustrated the point of system failure by saying: “Officials on the Macondo oil rig were in the process of lauding operators and workers for a low rate of personal injuries on the very day of the April 20, 2010 tragedy. Company VIPs had flown to the rig in part to commend the workforce for zero lost time incidents.

“This tragic similarity to the BP Texas City explosion, which occurred on the day of a luncheon to celebrate low personal injury rates, underscores the need for industry to examine broad process safety indicators to prevent future catastrophes.”

Training and communication

The importance of making sure the rig and all its parts are operating correctly means every worker is trained in knowing what to look for in identifying hazardous faults that could affect them or their colleagues.

The system must enable and facilitate the efficient communication and subsequent remedial action of any faults or problems perceived by any member of the workforce.

If such a watertight communication and remedial system is in place on rigs, a repeat of previous disasters may well be avoided in future.

So, training and communication are a huge part of oil rig safety.

While it is very important and necessary to know what sort of personal protective clothing to wear and what PPE to use in each different situation, it is also vitally important to carry out regular risk assessments. Checks on machinery, infrastructure and moving parts, all the ‘hardware’ that makes working on oil rigs actually work, should be carried out frequently and assessed alongside the operatives to ensure a safe system of work.

Further, the results of these risk assessments and observations should be methodically logged and communicated and, if improvements need to be made - implemented. These assessments should be monitored on an ongoing basis if a major incident is to be avoided.

To know information on the workings or failings of machinery or other items vital to oil manufacturing is one thing - but if this vital information does not get through to the right people who are enabled to assess and fix the fault, then this knowledge is of little use.

Personal Protective Equipment

To ensure the rig can function safely and self-sufficiently it is vital that all employees work together and communicate effectively.

From 2012 to 2015 the Offshore Division (OCD) will focus on reducing noise and vibration through technical and organisational means. This will hopefully improve communication, while protecting oil rig workers from excessive background noise.

Hearing protection

Because of the noise, communication in the drilling environment often consists solely of hand signals. The line between life and death may be separated only by a gesture which, if not seen, can put a worker at great risk of injury, or worse.

Headsets with noise-cancelling microphones are often used on the platform for hearing protection and clearer two-way communication. Though people differ in sensitivity, prolonged exposure to loud noise can cause permanent hearing loss. Sound walls and blanket panels can also be installed at the perimeter of the drill site or on the drilling rig to protect people from the noise generated by the drilling equipment.

Produced by the burning oil, elevated levels of carbon monoxide are also harmful, as inhaling even a small amount can lead to hypoxic injury. Chemical gases emitted by VOCs (volatile organic compounds) can also cause headaches, respiratory problems and damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.

Respiratory Protection Equipment

Protecting oil and gas workers from dangerous airborne substances is crucial and is done so through the correct, choice, fit and maintenance of Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE).

For the handling, therefore, of chemicals and/or mud additives, oil and gas workers are required to wear air purifying respirators. These respirators provide protection by filtering the air supplied to the worker. In the event of a gas leak, however, air-supplying respirators are also needed to provide a supply of breathable air from a clean source, .e.g. an air cylinder or air compressor.

Protective clothing

As oil or gas are highly combustible, the risk of an explosion is always present. The use of fire resistant clothing is essential as oil and gas workers are surrounded by massive fuel sources. Designed for oil handling, industrial cleaning and chemical protection, fire resistant clothing can mean the difference between life and death. As with all Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), comfort and fit are also important as uncomfortable PPE can become irritating, distracting and restrictive.

Hard hats

Though a slip or fall might appear quite insignificant in comparison to a flash fire, head protection is vitally important as a simple fall could lead to serious brain injury. Due to the heavy vibrations and slippery surfaces of an oil rig, pipes and tools can easily fall and land on workers’ heads.

Hard hats must therefore be worn at all times to protect workers. For the same reason safety harnesses are also required as derricks work 20-25 metres above the rig floor operating the machinery that positions the drill.


Steel-toed boots are a standby of almost every work boot brand. The toe is reinforced with steel to offer protection from heavy objects and machinery. Steel-toed boots often are combined with one or more other useful features such as waterproofing or oil-resistance.

The soles of oil and slip resistant work boots are specially made to provide superior traction on wet, slippery or oily surfaces. Insulated boots are differentiated by the number of ‘grams’ contained in the insulation. Boots with lower amounts, around 200 grams of insulation, are recommended for work in cool or normal conditions where the wearer is generating a lot of body heat from high levels of activity. Higher gram levels such as 400 are made for winter wear or cold weather.

Eye and hand protection

Eye protection is also needed to prevent flying debris and bright sunlight from damaging or discomforting the eyes. With long term durability, impact resistant gloves are also worn as hand and finger injuries are very common on drilling rigs. To help reduce the risk of hand and finger injuries, brightly coloured gloves are sometimes provided to increase awareness of hand safety while working.

All these considerations are important for personal safety of oil rig workers.

Apart from individual safety, oil rigs themselves provide many opportunities for hazards within their structure and operation, which as the reports on the Gulf of Mexico disaster identified, are a different issue to the personal safety of the individual.

“A number of past CSB (USA Chemical Safety Board) investigations have found companies focusing on personal injury rates while virtually overlooking looming process safety issues - like the effectiveness of barriers against hazardous releases, automatic shutoff system failures, activation of pressure relief devices, and loss of containment of liquids and gases," CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said.

The importance of hazard identification and risk assessments must never be overlooked.

Major accident hazard assessments

A good procedure to follow could involve the following:

• Elimination and minimisation of hazards by design

• Prevention - reduction of likelihood

• Detection - transmission of information to control point

• Control - limitation of scale, intensity and duration

• Mitigation of consequences - protection from effects

In the design process, due consideration should be given to inherent safety, fire and explosion risks addressed. Such risks can be reduced primarily through sound engineering design and management system controls and communication. For existing installations the Safety Case should address the scope for improving inherent safety processes to prevent and control major hazards.

New framework for oil rig process safety management

Following the high profile incidents at offshore oil rigs, refineries and storage facilities over the last 12 months, most notably the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, the British Energy Institute has created a framework to help organisations with their process safety management.

The institute argues that such process management should not focus simply on health and safety, but cover the “future integrity of the business.” In publishing the framework, the institute claims that: “Most well run organisations can tell you how many incidents they had yesterday; however, the real challenge is to be able to answer the question ‘How likely am I to have an incident-free day tomorrow?’”

NEBOSH International Technical Certificate in Oil and Gas Operational Safety

In recognising the issues around safety management in the oil and gas industry, NEBOSH (the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health) have developed a unique qualification. Designed specifically for those with safety responsibilities in the oil and gas industry, it is their latest addition to their portfolio of globally recognised health, safety, environmental and risk management qualifications.

The qualification focuses on international standards and management systems, enabling students to effectively discharge workplace safety responsibilities both onshore and offshore. The certificate also highlights the importance of process safety management in the oil and gas industry.

This course is ideal for anyone working in oil and gas with responsibility for ensuring safety as part of their day to day duties, including: managers, supervisors, employee representatives and newly appointed Health and Safety Advisers.

Published: 07th Nov 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East