After a series of adverse incidents, the UK offshore energy industry health and safety record has shown progressive improvement — and not by chance. As the economics of energy continue to make life difficult, there has also been a step-change reduction in incidents and injuries. Jon Herbert reports.

Offshore, 2010 was a bad year for health and safety. Major oil and gas industry injuries stood at 50, up by 20 on the previous year. Gas escapes, which are potential precursors to major incidents, increased from 61 to 85. The only good news was that fatalities in areas regulated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) were zero for the third year running.

Something had to be done — and it has.

The number of oil and gas leaks on the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) in 2015 actually rose by 9% to 87, according to data in a recent Oil & Gas UK report. However, this is attributed to an improvement in technology that allows the “smallest of escapes” to be detected. As a result, the majority were classed as minor; only three were said to be major.

Meanwhile, the number of dangerous occurrences, including fires, explosions, plus oil and gas releases, fell overall. Again, there were no reported fatalities.

Importantly, the reportable injury rate was lower than the equivalent in retail, manufacturing and construction.

At the same time, the UKCS lost time injury frequency rate was below the European average and also lower than Norway, Denmark and Ireland, the report found.

New regime

Hard work has led to the improved health and safety track record; the industry has been tackling a backlog of safety critical maintenance priorities on UK offshore oil and gas installations.

In the words of Oil & Gas UK Health, Safety and Environmental Policy Director, Mick Borwell, “Safety-critical maintenance has been — and will remain — a focus for the industry.” He added that “safe operation continues to be intrinsic to how we go about our activities on the UKCS, regardless of the oil price.” Economics and safety do not necessarily have to go hand in hand. Attitudes count too.

However, a strategic change at the beginning of 2016 is the key to a significant difference.

Revised offshore safety case regulations in the UK have been designed to help to safeguard workers and the environment, according to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). The Offshore Installations (Offshore Safety Directive) (Safety Case, etc) Regulations 2015 (SCR 2015) only really started to have an effect at the beginning of this year.

Applying to all oil and gas operations in UK waters, they replace the Offshore Installations (Safety Case) Regulations 2005 and are the UK’s response to the EU’s Offshore Safety Directive. This requires a more joined-up approach to offshore safety because existing national regulatory frameworks were found to be too fragmented.

SCR 2015 stipulates that its primary aim is to “reduce the risks from major accident hazards to the health and safety of the workforce employed on offshore installations or in connected activities”. Other goals are to provide more protection for the marine environment and coastal economies from pollution, while ensuring better response mechanisms if and when incidents do occur.

Allison Laws, Chairman of the Offshore Group at IOSH, commented, “The new regulations will help to protect thousands of workers in the offshore industry. It is vital that all operators follow the regulations and they will feel the benefits of doing so. After all, safety and health is an investment, not a cost.”

Silver lining to a disaster

The publication of the EU directive was prompted by the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico when an oil rig exploded, 11 workers were killed and millions of gallons of crude oil were released into the sea.

Another consequence of the directive is the formation of an offshore competent authority. The former Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) working with HSE established the Offshore Safety Directive Regulator (OSDR).

Under SCR 2015, safety cases must be prepared for all installations operating, or about to be operated, in external waters.

Operators setting up new production installations offshore must notify the OSDR early in the design stage. The same applies if a production installation is to be moved to a new location in external waters, or a non-production installation is being converted into a production installation. Notification must be followed by a safety case submission which the OSDR must agree to before the installation can be operated.

Some changes are small, others more significant. The aim was to minimise changes to the 2005 UK legislation.

Ian Waldram, a member of the IOSH Offshore Group committee, recommended that OSH professionals working in the UK sector at a minimum review the detailed guidance to the revised regulations to see whether and how processes and responsibilities in any organisations they advise might need to be updated or reinforced.

This guidance is aimed at anyone with duties under SCR 2015, such as licensees, production installation operators, non-production installation owners and well operators. Oil and gas activities in internal waters, including estuaries, are still covered by SCR 2005.

A further study by Oil & Gas UK with Deloitte notes that North Sea companies are now working with their supply chains at an earlier stage, taking on new ideas and solutions from suppliers. Evidence suggests that smaller companies, typically with fewer than 2500 workers, are more positive about collaborating with operators than larger ones with more than 10,000 personnel.

More productive

There is however more good news for the offshore sector in the form of improving competitiveness.

Industry efficiencies are leading to a 45% fall in the cost of extracting a barrel of UKCS oil or gas. Production in 2015 was up by 10.4%, the first increase in 15 years.

Oil & Gas UK’s Economic Report 2016 published on 27 September 2016 shows how the UK offshore oil and gas industry has moved forward despite difficult market conditions and low prices.

Offshore wind

Wind is also an important and expanding part of the UK’s offshore energy industry. The world’s largest wind farm to date is to be built off the Yorkshire coast. The huge Hornsea scheme will include 300 turbines generating enough electricity for 1.8 million homes.

Business and Energy Secretary, Greg Clark, says the decision is a marker of the UK as “a global leader in offshore wind”, adding that, “The industry has grown at an extraordinary rate over the last few years, and is a fundamental part of our plans to build a clean, affordable, secure energy system.”

Making UK offshore wind a leading destination for investment in renewable energy, jobs and economic growth is a strategic objective. The Government is also making £730 million of financial support available for renewable electricity generation, including 10GW of offshore wind to be installed by the end of the decade.

The offshore wind sector faces the dilemma of its older fossil-fuel contemporary. As a new and expanding industry, it suffers from the problem that during the construction phase, copious personnel, vessel and material supplies mean that health and safety priorities are well served.

However, once construction ends and energy production begins, the operation and maintenance (O&M) stage suddenly sees a sharp reduction in resources. This means that services supporting health and safety are under pressure to be time-efficient and cost-effective. The result is considerable innovation in health and safety packages that take into account very local weather conditions, tight equipment schedules and flexible programming.

The challenge is becoming even more complex as new wind farms move out into deeper more remote offshore waters.

Unfortunately, UK offshore wind sector health and safety incidents in 2015 were higher than the year before; UK wind farms recorded a 31% rise in the total recordable injury rate (TRIR) and a 34% increase in lost time injury frequency (LTIF), according to the G9 Offshore Wind Health and Safety Association. European figures were broadly unchanged.

In the UK industry, there were 790 incidents with 28 work days lost. The equivalent for Europe was 983 incidents and 41 works days lost.

The LTIF rate for Europe was 1.93 and 2.96 for the UK. Europe’s TRIR was 5.99; for the UK the figure was 7.95. There were no 2015 fatalities but there is obviously still work to be done here.

Published by Croner-i on 12 December 2016



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