Process safety in offshore oil and gas industry: a review of the present and future practices
Oil and gas industry keeps playing an increasingly significant role in the global economy. Nowadays the world consumes over 30 billion barrels of oil per year, and despite all the innovations in alternative energy, this figure doesn’t seem to decrease in the foreseeable future. Offshore drilling, or extraction of oil through the seabed, is currently no less popular than other forms of extraction. In the Gulf of Mexico alone there are over 3.5 thousand oil platforms in use, and other areas of seaborne oil extraction like the North Sea, West African coast, Brazil, Azerbaijan and Sakhalin represent similar numbers. In other words, offshore drilling has become a significant and even crucial element of the contemporary oil and gas industry, and it tends to face similar risks as well as some unique ones.
Upstream processes in the petroleum industry have never been free from risks. The accidents may lead to technological, staff and environmental catastrophes, affecting productivity and jeopardizing the very existence of the extraction site. The highly volatile and unpredictable environment in case of offshore operations is responsible for additional forms of risks. All these factors have been thoroughly analyzed in professional and academic literature and will be assessed from this point of view within this research.
Aim and objectives
The main aim of this research is to analyze various approaches towards the issue of process safety in offshore oil and gas industry, determine current issues and define the main trends of the nearest future. This works involves a considerable amount of source analysis, therefore the literature review section will be the largest one.
The objectives of the research include the verification of the following three hypotheses regarding the topic:
- There are certain areas in process safety of the offshore oil and gas industry that require improvement;
- There is a possibility of such improvement;
- Such improvement is consistent with the paradigm of the industry development.
In order to accumulate the critical information regarding these points of interest, it would be reasonable to begin with a profound and extensive analysis of sources.
The first group of sources is related to the issue of personnel as the main source of enhancement of process safety on the offshore facilities. In the research titled “Site managers and safety leadership in the offshore oil and gas industry” A.O’Dea and R.Flin have performed a survey among over 200 offshore installation managers who operate at the seabed drilling rigs by the shore of the United Kingdom. Due to the results of the survey, which tested the level of professional experience and the extent of its relevance to leadership styles and efficiency, there is no direct correlation between the level of proficiency and ability to prevent accidents following specific leadership patterns (p.56). Moreover, even the most professional managers from the survey pool failed to identify the unified safety standards, therefore making the problem of application of standardized safety culture a matter of great practical significance.
It is clear that the matter of process safety at the offshore facilities is not a sole liability of any particular professional, but a matter of attention of the entire team. The research “Risk perception and attitudes to safety by personnel in the offshore oil and gas industry: a review” clarifies the main aspects of the factors that contribute to process safety. Apart from such obvious and formal conditions as compliance of the management systems with health and safety law, a regular and independent audit of the safety systems and timely assessment of potential risks and hazards, such element as the system of socio-cultural relations within the team may also be an important factor of risk estimation and prevention (p.303). A comparison between Norwegian and British offshore drilling teams is performed in order to demonstrate the ability of the former to perform a more effective damage prevention duties due to the more effective teamwork.
The analysis performed above leads to the two significant issues worth considering within the context of the research: criteria of risk acceptance in the offshore oil and gas industry and the impact of personnel management practices on the overall process safety in the industry. The former issue is being described in the article “On the use of the risk acceptance criteria in the offshore oil and gas industry” by Terje Aven and Jan Erik Vinnem. The authors tend to position the principle of cost-effectiveness as a more effective method of risk estimation in comparison to the adoption of the pre-defined risk-acceptance limits (p.19). The reasoning of the authors is backed by the statistical survey of more than 20 years of development and installation of offshore oil and gas facilities in the North Sea by the UK companies.
There is an opinion, however, that despite all the predefined and measured risks, there are factors of irrational nature that may affect process safety of the offshore installations. In his article “A fallible safety system: institutionalized irrationality in the offshore oil and gas industry” Chris Wright uses the example of the explosion on the offshore platform Piper Alpha in 1988, describing the decision-making process of the various chains of command that precluded the accident (p.88). The author tries to prove that process safety does not solely rely on quantifiable and predictable factors, be it elements of operational grid or human reactions and respective performance. It has to be taken into account that the safety system may not be 100% accident-proof, and it is only in the power of the staff to minimize the chance of the accident, not eliminate it entirely.
One of the factors that contribute positively to the performance of professionals regarding process safety, is unification of safety assessment techniques. The finding of S.J.Cox and A.J.T.Cheyne, as reflected in their work “Assessing safety culture in offshore environments”, is the Safety Climate Assessment Kit, which was developed throughout intensive field research of safety incentives of the offshore facilities in the Gulf of Mexico by the U.S. and in the North Sea by the UK (p.128). This toolkit has been developed as early as in 2000, and it clearly demonstrates the technical possibility of unification of process safety measures all around the globe.
As it was already mentioned, the level of hazard in the oil and gas industry it traditionally high, especially in case of offshore drilling. Not the last factor that is to be considered in this regard is the level and specification of the national culture of the staff, as pointed out in “The role of the national culture in determining safety performance: Challenges for the global oil and gas industry” by K.Mearns and S.Yule. The authors manage to determine a correlation (although not necessarily causation) between the standards of the national culture, perception of risk and analytical patterns, and frequency and possibility of safety violations in various countries around the globe, both onshore and offshore (p.780). These findings are especially important for multinational companies, as they may have offshore teams with a certain degree of national and ethnical diversity.
Despite the fact that all members of the team are responsible for the process safety of offshore installments, and the managers may not be ultimate authority in this field, as demonstrated above, the offshore installation managers still happen to be formal leaders, and their decisions may be quite significant. Due to this reason, enhancement of their emergency decision-making capability is one of the ways of improvement of the process safety in the industry. R.Flin, G.Slaven and K.Stewart happen to have researched this topic and provided their findings in the article titled “Emergency decision making in the offshore oil and gas industry”. The authors tend to underline the significance of the training of OIMs in crisis management, even if they are in charge of stable and sustainable offshore facilities. The skills that on-scene commanders obtain through this education may potentially prevent the expansion of a critical situation (p.271).
It may be seen from the articles assessed that currently various aspects of process safety of the offshore elements of oil and gas industry are being analyzed by various researchers all around the world. There are also articles that tend to summarize the findings of other scholars and even predict the further development of the process safety in offshore oil and gas facilities. “Inherent safety in oil and gas activities: a review of the present status and future directions” by F.I.Khan and P.R. Amoyotte happens to be a valid example. The article summarizes the existing approaches towards estimation of risk through cost-effective approach and hazard/risk management and refers to the existing problems such as lack of awareness and unified standardized safety-related procedures and practices (p.289). The authors point out the significance of further technological and administrative progress in the industry as viable factors for further development and popularization of process safety initiatives.
Offshore drilling facility is a place where many things can get wrong. The team of such installment may vary from zero (in case of automatic unmanned rigs) to several hundred people. The equipment of the rig is diverse and complicated, and some of its elements are sensitive both to the human factor and environmental impact. According to the description of the problem within various scholarly articles, the industry is facing the following primary factors of risk:
- Technological risk - equipment failure caused by various internal or external factors, such failure ay evolve into a fire or combustion;
- Environmental risk – this may be either a strong and unpredictable negative environmental impact (tidal waves, earthquake etc.), or vice versa – ecological catastrophe caused by the facility, such as oil spill.
- Personnel risk – it is often possible to handle the critical situation at an early stage and take respective precautions in order to prevent the crisis from further expansion. From this point of view, the main factors are perception of risk by all members of the team, transformational and emergency leadership skills of the management, communication and decision-making efficiency.
- Irrational risk – it is rare, it is unpredictable, but it is possible. Sometimes even the most effective and well-coordinated efforts of professionals may lead to low outcome due to some factor X that could not be predicted within the existing models of risk evaluations.
It is clear that the existing systems of process safety management in offshore oil and gas industry are not perfect and undoubtedly need further improvement. As suggested by various researchers, this optimization may take several various paths:
- Technological advancement – implementation of such automatic systems as PlantPAx is capable of minimizing the possibility of unawareness of respective personnel regarding violation of process safety.
- Unification of process safety standards. It is true that the offshore oil and gas industry is represented by the wide range of companies, both national and multinational, and the competition and diversity are quite strong. The unification of procedures at a global scale, nevertheless, may be quite useful in terms of prevention of process safety breaches.
- There have to be effective and comprehensive training programs for teams in order to enhance their communication efficiency and ability to handle emergency situations.
O’Dea, A., Flin, R., 2001. Site managers and safety leadership in the offshore oil and gas industry. Safety Science, Vol. 37, Issue 1 (2001), p. 39-57
F.I.Khan, F.I., Amoyotte, P.R., 2002. Inherent safety in oil and gas activities: a review of the present status and future directions. Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries. Vol. 15, Issue 4 (2002), p. 279-289
Mearns, K., Flin, R., 1995. Risk perception and attitudes to safety by personnel in the offshore oil and gas industry: a review. Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, Vol.8, Issue 5 (1995), p.299-305
Aven, T., Vinnem J.E., 2005. On the use of risk acceptance criteria in the offshore oil and gas industry. Reliability Engineering and System Safety, Vol. 90, Issue 1 (2005), p. 15-24
Cox, S.J., Cheyne, A.J.T., 2000. Assessing safety culture in offshore environments. Safety Science, Vol. 34, Issues 1-3(2000), p.111-129
Wright, C., 1994. A fallible safety system: institutionalised irrationality in the offshore oil and gas industry. The Sociological Review, Vol. 42, Issue 1(1994), p. 79-103
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