Better safe than sorry

While the oil and gas industry has come a long way in fire safety, Simon Rooks illustrates whythe sector must continue to embrace innovation


While the oil and gas industry has come a long way in fire safety, Simon Rooks illustrates whythe sector must continue to embrace innovation

With low oil prices increasingly draining revenue from oil and gas organisations, the industry has been forced into a period of intense cost cutting. Recent research carried out by the Bank of Scotland indicated that 43 per cent of the industry was planning further cuts in the coming year after an already grim 2015.

However, reducing costs can be a particularly dangerous process for the oil and gas sector, as even the tiniest short cut on essential procedures like safety can result in disaster. Such a chain of events unfortunately played out almost three decades ago, when the world’s deadliest oilrig accident claimed 167 lives at the Piper Alpha platform operated by Occidental Petroleum, off the coast of Aberdeen. Many believe a key cause of some of the failures leading to the disaster was reduced expenditure on equipment and infrastructure – and the challenges that confronted Occidental Petroleum 28 years ago are once again gripping the oil and gas industry today.

Keeping up with the times
The upkeep and safety management of oil and gas assets should certainly be a priority given that the majority of active oil and gas assets being older platforms, with some at least 40 years old and many older than 30. In fact, the latest table released from the Oil and Gas Authority in November 2015 shows that the average age of the current manned, operational installation in the UK Continental Shelf is well over 28 years of age. Unfortunately, effective protection against the threat of fire and explosions for older oil and gas assets can be expensive, and as a result, companies across the market are having to look closely at their processes in an attempt to maintain essential fire and safety standards while simultaneously achieving a reduction in costs. For many, there is the risk that this will take the form either of an unhealthy reduction in resources – delaying service callouts, for example – or an attempt to strong-arm fire and safety suppliers into a cheaper deal, which will likely lead to a reduced service level.

As such, many organisations are increasingly relying on technology innovations to help protect their assets and extend the life of installations. Research into the oil and gas industry’s priorities up to 2025 shows that the number one driver for investment into technical innovation is safety improvements (45 per cent) – which surprisingly tops both reducing costs (43 per cent) and accessing new reserves (29 per cent). However, there is still resistance in the market to embracing innovations, and adoption rates across the industry could be improved in order to ensure safety is truly paramount across operations.

For instance, structures including fire protection systems on all offshore oil and gas platforms face particularly harsh challenges given the salt water environments and marine weather conditions, as well as the prevalence of hydrocarbons and toxic gases on board.

A key example of this are firewater deluge systems, which are the primary source of offshore active fire protection on-board an installation. As a Safety and Environmental Critical Element (SECE), they should be fit for purpose and function on-demand, to as-built design criteria, in every instance in which they are called upon. However, blockages within deluge systems are a common occurrence, due to corrosion, marine growth, salt crystallisation and other bi-products of seawater. These blockages have a serious impact on the functionality of the system and greatly increase the risk of a fire running out of control. Many have looked to solve this problem by changing out the material of the pipework within their deluge system to various elastomers, cupronickel and even titanium. However, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report on the impact of blockages concluded that blockages will still occur within the pipework regardless of the material from which they are constructed.

Embracing innovation
Despite technology developments, maintenance regimes themselves also contribute to the problem. The majority of operators in the UK Continental Shelf currently employ wet testing to prove the compliance of their deluge system. This essentially means spraying tons of seawater through the pipework, causing the deposits and blockages described above. These blockages add a dangerous element of luck to the system’s ability to function fully on demand. There may be a second or third chance to pass a deluge test, but there is only one chance to suppress a fire.

As such, a crucial innovation has been developed to enable the dry-testing of deluge systems, which can enable cost optimisation whilst maintaining compliance, without causing the run-of-the-mill damage which contributes to platform life-end. For example, dry deluge testing can ensure compliance whilst increasing asset integrity, on-board safety and at the same time saving on costs. A dry-test regime enables the operator to reduce the frequency of corrosive seawater tests, reducing the likelihood of blockages and extending the operational life of deluge systems. At a time when every little helps, adopting this kind of innovative approach to routine protocols can make an enormous difference on the bottom line.

Resilience can also be significantly improved by installing innovative solutions to protect deluge discharge nozzles, to ensure all nozzles remain operational even if there is debris within pipework. Coupled with environment-specific technology, this type of innovative service delivery method can save operators over 21 per cent per year over the remaining life of the asset, whilst at the same time ensuring essential system resilience.

Furthermore, many organisations fear they are faced with the expensive and laborious task of pipe change out – historically, these can cost upwards of £4 million per asset for exotic material pipework. Today however, technology exists that can ensure system reliability and resilience can be met without costly infrastructure overhaul, for a tenth of the cost.

A step change
A significant change in attitudes and behaviours is also  required to open new ideas related to safety. The phrase ‘but we’ve always done it that way’ has no place in the next generation of offshore oil & gas culture. For example, dry deluge testing can ensure compliance whilst increasing asset integrity, on-board safety and at the same time saving on costs. A dry-test regime enables the duty holder to reduce the frequency of corrosive seawater tests, reducing the likelihood of blockages and extending the operational life of deluge systems. At a time when every little helps, adopting this kind of innovative approach to routine protocols can make an enormous difference on the bottom line. This programme and approach does and must still satisfy the requirements of the Offshore Installations (Offshore Safety Directive) (Safety Case etc.) Regulations 2015.

Fortunately, the oil and gas industry has come a long way in fire and safety management since the Piper Alpha disaster. The increased focus on legislation has had a huge impact – with regulations such as Safety Integrity Level (SIL) compliance, which focuses on risk reduction and system reliability across platforms, as well as Offshore Installations regulations around Asset Through Life Extension, which ensure oil and gas platforms past their design life is safe to remain operational, forcing oil and gas organisations to closely examine and update many of their fire and safety processes. If past disasters teach the industry anything, it’s that airtight safety protocols are non-negotiable, and that those companies which attempt to reap short-term savings by cutting corners are setting themselves and the wider community up for catastrophe.

While we’ve certainly moved forwards as an industry, we must continue to work together to ensure these safety improvement innovations are implemented. Only by taking the initiative and embracing new technology can the oil and gas industry lay down a new framework for working practices in the coming years while also saving costs.

TYCO
Simon Rooks is Operations Director, Oil and Gas at Tyco. Tyco is one of the world’s largest fire safety and security companies, which works to improve business operations in the oil and gas industries with innovative fire detection and suppression solutions. Tyco ensures the health and safety of employees and safeguards property from risks such as terrorist threats, while also addressing issues of compliance with government fireprevention standards and regulations, and industry codes in a cost-effective manner.

For further information please visit: tycois.com