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Safety first - working at height on oil and gas platforms

Published:  04 November, 2016

Oil and gas work environments are inherently dangerous ones, especially when working at height is involved. Raphaël Dubois, fall protection manager at Honeywell Industrial Safety EMEA, looks at the main risks for oil and gas workers and the keys to accident prevention.

When compared to other industries, the oil and gas sector is recognised internationally as one that continually strives to make worker safety a priority. Working at height is at the heart of a typical offshore rig’s daily activities and accounts for the vast majority of injuries. In the North Sea oil fields -- the EU’s main oil producing area1 -- basic tasks such as maintenance, construction and deck operations result in 70% of the major injuries on rigs, and slips, trips, falls and accidents whilst working at height are some of the most common causes.2

Although most injured workers recover, fatalities are still common. In the USA in 2014 there were 70 fatalities on oil and gas extraction sites – 27 of which were a direct result of a slip, trip or fall.3 During the same period in the North Sea, one fatality resulted from a fall from height4.

Despite all this, almost all accidents and injuries remain preventable.

Creating a firm safety foundation

When looking at personal fall protection equipment (PFPE) there are three main considerations to make. The first one is ‘avoidance’: can work at height be avoided, even work carried out at low height levels where falling may not be considered a severe issue? The second one is ‘prevention’: do you want personal or collective fall protection to safeguard your workers? The final one is ‘mitigation’: will your fall protection equipment reliably arrest a fall?

PFPE systems should include three physical parts: an anchor point (permanent or temporary), body wear (harness, restraint belts) and connecting device (self-retractable lifelines, shock-absorbing lanyards).

Before selecting fall arrest equipment, consider the user, the work environment and the specific job or application to be performed. The service life of PFPE varies greatly depending upon frequency and conditions of use, so ensure pre-use inspections are undertaken.

If someone is working on or is likely to encounter sharp edges, it is vital to ensure they are using a system that has been fully edge tested and is compliant to EN360:2002 regulations (PPE against falls from height - retractable type fall arresters) and meets all VG11.060 (edge), VG11.062 (140kg) and VG11.085 (FF2) testing requirements.

Harness selection

The combination of long shift patterns and difficult working conditions mean comfort, flexibility and durability are critical factors when selecting appropriate fall arrest harnesses. These must meet the requirements of EN 361:2002 (PPE against falls from height - full body harnesses) and should be certified for use up to 140kg.

Opt for harnesses with enhanced comfort features including the latest H design styles with large openings on both sides and horizontal leg straps. Special materials such as DuraFlex® webbing provide enhanced comfort at the shoulders. Easy-access buckles and adjustable chest straps allow the wearer to adjust the harness for a more comfortable fit. Given the nature of the typical rig environment, where workers are often faced with extreme weather conditions and dirty tasks, choose harnesses manufactured with highly durable, water-repellent and stain free webbing.

Flexible, easy-to-connect front and back anchor points, including front webbing loops and a D-ring, will help centre the worker in the event of a fall and prevent sideways tilting. For ease of safety inspection, ensure that highly visible stitching and fall indicators are integrated within the harness, indicating whether it has been involved in a fall and is therefore unfit for continued service.

Finally, understanding the risks and hazards specific to key tasks is critical to worker safety.

Climbing the derrick ladder

With operators scaling heights in excess of 50 meters on the derrick ladder for servicing, stripping and rig up-and-down operations, fall protection is fundamental. Depending upon the type of rig, offset ladders may also be used, which can put the worker at risk of falling during the transition from one ladder to another. The ladder could also be greasy, icy or very narrow, which increases the fall risk.

With this in mind, ensure that EN 353-1:2014-certified vertical permanent fall-arrest systems are fitted to all derrick ladders. Where they have not been fitted as standard, retrofit a rail in either aluminum, galvanised steel or stainless steel onto existing ladders or fit a vertical cable system, ensuring the cable is manufactured in either galvanised or stainless steel (preferred for corrosion resistance and longer lifespan).

Alternatively, you can consider using an EN 360-certified self-retractable lifeline (SRL) which is permanently mounted at the top of the ladder. The SRL should be carefully selected taking into consideration good corrosion resistance and low maintenance requirements.

For derrick ladder operations, opt for a range of relevant connecting devices, including edge tested lanyards certified to EN355:2002.

Monkey/tubing board and basket work

Of all the typical rig tasks, monkey tubing board and basketwork is the one that exposes the operator or derrick hand to the greatest risk of falling. The nature of the work (leaning forward to assemble the drilling pipes) requires both a positioning system as well as back up fall arrest system. The system should be designed and installed to reduce the swinging effect and an accidental free fall, whilst not interfering with the draw-works or elevators during operations.

And because the operator could be on a board for an entire shift (often in extreme weather conditions), harnesses should be highly comfortable and designed to resist extreme working environments including heat/cold, UV exposure, grease, oil and mud. Additionally, the operator also needs to pay special attention when transferring from the derrick ladder to the board or basket and during this process must be 100% tied-off.

Anchor devices suitable for this work include high visibility fixed fall anchorages certified to EN50308, and EN795-Class B certified mobile fall protection anchorages including beam anchors and steel slings. EN 360 SRLs should be the preferred fall-arrester option to minimise fall hazards. They should be selected taking into consideration the harsh environment and reduced maintenance needs. Finally, EN358-certified rope positioning lanyards must be used for positioning.

Raising operations

During raising operations workers are often lifted by hoists or winches. Some of these may not be man-rated, with potential for severe or fatal injuries if the worker becomes entangled and the winch operator fails to notice and keeps pulling. A back-up system (e.g. SRL) should be installed should the hoist/winch fail. In such cases a proper rescue plan with appropriate rescue equipment needs to be in place.

And because the operator will be suspended (often in extreme weather conditions), harnesses should be comfortable, include a suspension sling or seat (fixed or ideally removable) with suspension anchorage points, and resist extreme working environments including heat/cold, UV exposure, grease, oil and mud.

Anchor devices suitable for this work include EN50308-EN 795 certified fixed fall anchorages and EN795 Class B beam anchors and steel slings.

General maintenance operations

Many maintenance tasks such as general rigging, welding, fabrication support and boiler repair occur on a daily basis, requiring workers to climb various structures in and around the platform. This work is often carried out in rain, wind and snow, which can increase risk of falling.

Taking all these hazards into consideration workers will need compact, lightweight and modular solutions to enable them to perform their various tasks effectively. With this in mind, ensure that anchor devices include lightweight and easy-to-install EN795 Class B mobile anchorages such as mobile horizontal lifelines, beam clamps or steel/webbing slings. Fall arresters should be selected providing a worker with 100% tie off, reducing the free fall and providing the worker with a safe and certified solution in the event of fall against a sharp edge. Small, sharp-edge tested SRLs often represent the best solution in terms of safety and comfort. Finally, harnesses should be highly comfortable (stretch shoulder webbing, quick-connect buckles, comfort padding) and versatile (belt for work-positioning and suspension point) and should ultimately resist extreme working environments including heat/cold, UV exposure, grease, oil and mud.

Ultimately, when it comes to working at height in the offshore industry, planning is essential. By effectively assessing the risks and taking a sensible and pragmatic approach, safety managers can create safe work conditions in the harshest working environments. With this in mind, an escape system should always be in place in the event of a blowout or explosion or any other emergency situations that require rescuing a worker. The system should provide controlled descent in case of injury or unconsciousness, be installed in a safe and easily accessible location, and be easy to operate.

All employees working at height should of course be qualified and trained by competent people (for example from a PPE manufacturer or specialised training institute). Training will vary depending on the requirements but should be both theoretical and practical, and renewed on a regular basis especially for employees in charge of rescue operations.

For more information please visit: http://www.honeywellsafety.com

References:

1 – http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52015SC0167

2 - http://www.hse.gov.uk/offshore/statistics/hsr1415.pdf

3 - http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.nr0.htm

4 - http://www.hse.gov.uk/offshore/statistics/hsr1415.pdf

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