Long way down

With risks to safety and reputation from Dropped Objects remaining potent, the industry must drive down the number of incidents posing a threat to human health and successful operations. By Mike Rice

Safety has always been a priority for the international Oil & Gas (O&G) sector – and with good reason. Operations – particularly on offshore drilling platforms – take place under difficult conditions; the combination of high activity, strong vibrations caused by drilling, heavy and mobile machinery, and the harsh offshore environment create a setting conducive to incidents.

Dropped Objects are amongst the most frequent incidents reported on- and offshore. These incidents not only threaten financial and reputational consequences to O&G majors and operators, but also pose a risk to human health – and even life.

According to DROPS, Dropped Objects are among the Top 10 causes of fatality and serious injury in the O&G industry1. Indeed, it may be the largest contributor; one major O&G company with international operations reported in 2017 that 68 per cent of its High Potential Incidents (HiPos) were caused by dropped objects. Dropped Object incidents fall into one of two categories: static Dropped Objects, and dynamic Dropped Objects.

The former includes incidents where secured fixtures and fittings such as lights and cameras have fallen from height, while the latter refers to smaller objects that fall – or are dropped by personnel – from height, such as handheld radios and tools. Incidents can also be caused by collisions; for example, if a moving load collides with an untethered object resting on a raised walkway, knocking it down to the ground many metres below.

The above O&G major reported that, while 68 per cent of its HiPo incidents were caused by Dropped Objects, only five per cent were associated with static equipment falling from the derrick. This relatively low number is due to a concerted effort over the past ten years to systematically inspect and install secondary retention on equipment at height in the derrick, including the use of stainless steel mesh nets that tightly enclose and tether static objects – such as large light fixtures – thus retaining loose or dislodged items.

Dynamic dropped objects (accounting for the remaining 63 per cent of HiPo incidents) pose a greater challenge – not just for this O&G major, but also for the rest of the industry. The nature of offshore rig work, which requires operators to use a multitude of loose objects – from water bottles to hard hats and shackles – while working at height creates an immediate risk of smaller objects falling, or being dropped, from height. Many fall from a significant height, threatening to cause injury or fatality, were the object to hit a person.

The problem of Dropped Objects – both static and dynamic – is compounded by three current industry trends: cost pressures, the loss of experienced personnel, and the reintroduction of aging legacy equipment back into service. As oil prices fluctuate, the industry is coping with revenue uncertainty by attempting to cut costs throughout the supply chain – which threatens to cause underinvestment in the most robust safety solutions available. Compounding this, as senior industry workers leave the sector, either for retirement or to join new offshore industries, they take with them years of experience and ‘lessons learnt’. This hampers the transfer of knowledge to younger employees and makes it more difficult to reduce the instances of incidents caused by human error.

Simultaneously, the market is grappling with the challenge of bringing ‘stacked’ rigs out of retirement. The oil industry has long relied upon stacking as a method of coping with the cyclical ‘boom and bust’ nature of the oil market, but the years of low oil prices between 2015 and 2017, culminating in the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil falling to 30.12 USD per barrel in January 20162, saw an unprecedented number of idle drilling rigs sent to storage.

While the process of stacking theoretically requires that equipment is maintained and preserved for future use, this is not always the case – and the process of bringing the rigs back into service introduces inevitable risks as, if equipment has not being maintained, it is likely to have suffered corrosion during its time in retirement.

These three market trends, all of which increase the risks of Dropped Objects incidents on offshore platforms, are posing an increasing challenge to HSE managers – and we have seen demand for efficient safety solutions rise in recent years, as decision-makers seek to prevent dangerous and damaging Dropped Objects incidents before they occur.

As well as the stainless-steel mesh nets used to enclose static objects secured at height, demand is rising for solutions to dynamic Dropped Objects, such as barriers – which can be fitted to open guard railings, stairways, and elevated work platforms, to prevent smaller items such as tools, radios, aerosol spray cans, and maintenance equipment from falling from height. Individual solutions such as pouches can also be used to tether handheld objects to operators’ belts and harness straps.

This increase in demand is indicative of a positive trend among HSE managers towards self-regulation, as individual projects adopt ‘best practice’ standards when it comes to preventing Dropped Objects incidents, protecting not only their employees but also the financial and reputational integrity of the companies involved in the operation.

Self-regulation within the industry is necessary if it is to avoid blanket regulations being imposed by external regulatory bodies, robbing project managers of the ability to tailor safety solutions to individual sites, and limiting both the effectiveness of such solutions and the costefficiency with which they can be implemented.

This is all the more important given the emphasis on cost-cutting, as well as new market trends such as the departure of senior personnel from the industry and the reemployment of stacked rigs – all of which elevate risks from Dropped Objects.

These factors are driving market demand for effective, ‘best in class’ solutions to prevent injury and damage due to Dropped Objects – both dynamic and static. The industry now has a clear opportunity to prove it is able to self-regulate, protecting both its workers and its reputation. Achieving this will be vital, if the industry is to retain its independence.

Furthermore, and with companies feeling the squeeze of cost-cutting during project operations, the adoption of high standards and technical safety solutions across the board could ultimately enable drilling contractors and other players to benefit from more sustainable day rates, by cultivating a reputation as a premium, ‘best in the market’ service offering.

From what we’ve seen so far, O&G companies are keen to rise to this challenge and drive positive change by adopting superior safety solutions. Now we just need to maintain the momentum.

1 DROPS: http://www.dropsonline.org/assets/DROPS%20Intro.pdf
2 MacroTrends.Net: http://www.macrotrends.net/1369/crude-oilprice-history-chart