A Brief History of Offshore Safety Standards

Wed, 01/21/2015 - 14:24

When browsing lists of the most dangerous jobs, duties performed in offshore drilling and production platforms do not tend to make the cut. The latest American list, defined by the 2012 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries prepared by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, places loggers, fishermen, and airline pilots on its first three spots. Offshore oil and gas work is nowhere to be found, although jobs that are close or at times even parallel to the offshore industry, such as those in construction or metallurgy, do make an appearance in the list. In Mexico, calculations based on fatal work accident statistics and surveys prepared by the Mexican Institute of Social Insurance place police work, mining, and industrial-chemical activities at the top of its list. Once again, offshore work is absent. However, this omission should not be interpreted as proof that offshore oil and gas work does not involve significant risks and a constant engagement with dangerous situations and environments. Rodrigo Nieto, General Manager of Falck Safety Services de México, certainly believes so. “It is very easy to get involved in an accident out here. It is so easy to put yourself at risk, and the offshore drilling industry is still one of the most dangerous industries to be working in.” Instead, what must be acknowledged is that the offshore oil and gas industry has a history of developing particularly stringent and useful safety standards that have managed to keep it off such infamous lists.

The oil and gas industry is very much like any other industry in the sense that it has had to learn from its mistakes, particularly in the development of modern offshore safety standards and certifications. Perhaps this principle can be best illustrated by one of the most internationally recognizable of these standards and credentials, which is maintained and regulated by OPITO (Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organization). The history of OPITO stretches back to the creation of the original PITB (Petroleum Industry Training Board) in the UK during the late 1970s. This organism was not originally meant to address safety concerns as it was constituted as a means to close the skill gaps between the traditional British industrial workforce. At the time, this workforce was heavily focused on mining skills that could be transferred to an oil and gas working environment but they faced a majority of foreign specialized offshore workers, many of whom were Mexican. The latter were experienced enough to be fully involved in the construction and installation work then taking place in the North Sea. However, the full establishment of the OPITO standard did not come about until 1991, in the dark shadow cast by the 1988 Piper Alpha incident. The subsequent inquiry resulted in the 1990 Cullen Report and its 106 recommendations for changes to North Sea safety procedures; some background on this chain of events is necessary to understand the gravity of this tragedy and the extent of its influence on offshore safety standards.

The Piper Alpha incident is perhaps the most infamous of its kind, due in part to its hauntingly long list of casualties which remains the largest of any disaster of its kind to this day. Of the 226 workers that were stationed on the platform on that night of July 6th 1988, 165 perished, along with two more men from the standby vessel Sandhaven. Piper Alpha had been in service as a North Sea oil production platform since 1976, was then operated by Occidental Petroleum Corporation, and was the source of approximately 10% of the UK’s total North Sea oil and gas production. The explosion of a condensate pump and the subsequent fire it ignited engulfed the platform and trapped many of resting men inside of their living quarters or similarly closed spaces. This is what led to the elevated number of fatalities. The Cullen Inquiry was set up by November 1988 to investigate the precise causes of the incident and the manner in which it could have been averted. The aforementioned Cullen Report was a direct result of these proceedings and the changes that it demanded in offshore safety protocols became codified in the OPITO standard that is now recognized and accepted worldwide. Mexico is still not a part of this OPITO-based framework as its safety standards have been based on a different history marked by different events. One of the most important of these events was the Ixtoc-1 blowout in 1979, which released 3.5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, PEMEX has developed the policy of demanding all types of credentials from rig crews before they are allowed to work offshore. This sounds like a positive step forward but it led to some problems. “There was too much confusion,” says Nieto. “For example, when hiring a welder, what is the precise minimum training that he needs? If he is to work on a drilling rig, some might say he needs a rig pass, an STCW training certificate, as well as a national Mexican safety standard. The list can go on and on. Companies could lose days and weeks at a time just to get people trained to even be able to go offshore.”

A second event would come to define the prioritization of safety in the Mexican oil and gas industry. On October 23, 2007, difficult weather conditions caused oscillating movements in the Usumacinta jack-up rig, operated at the time by Perforadora Central in the Bay of Campeche. These movements made its cantilever deck hit and sever one of the production valves of the adjacent Kab-101 production platform, leading to uncontainable leaks and ignitions of oil and gas that ended up causing 22 casualties. Subsequent investigations made by the Battelle Institute revealed the great extent to which the lack of safety training increased the incident’s terrible outcome.