The future of offshore risk management

In 2015, Oil & Gas UK published its annual Health & Safety Report. It showed mixed performance with incident rates and hydrocarbon releases declining, but unfortunately, two work-place fatalities occurred during the year.

In 2015, Oil & Gas UK published its annual Health & Safety Report. It showed mixed performance with incident rates and hydrocarbon releases declining, but unfortunately, two work-place fatalities occurred during the year. One item which has raised concern is the trade association’s report on safety critical maintenance backlog. This shows a steady, increasing trend of planned and deferred maintenance backlog since 2011. The deferred maintenance backlog of safety critical equipment alone has risen from an average of less than 1,000 man hours per facility to nearly 4,000 man hours in the past four years.

The UK continental shelf (UKCS) is a mature area where production from many fields is in decline and facilities are showing their age. Many operators face the dilemma where their production rate, or revenue source, is a fraction of what it was when the field was producing at its peak rate. A majority of facilities are approaching or have exceeded their design lives, and each year costs for maintenance and repair increase while the revenue stream to fund it diminishes. Factor in the precipitous fall in oil prices over the last 18 months, and it would be no exaggeration to say the UKCS and other mature offshore fields are facing a crisis.

Given this situation, there has never been a more critical need in the industry to address risk management in offshore facilities. The design of offshore structures forces a compromise between safety and construction costs.

If it were an onshore production site, an engineer would not contemplate building processing facilities on top of multiple production wellheads with offices and accommodations adjacent. Principles would be applied to minimize risk such as wide spacing of hazardous equipment and vessels, separating offices and accommodations from these hazards, etc.

Offshore, particularly deepwater, construction costs make such approaches unfeasible. That does not mean operational stakeholders should approach this in a cavalier fashion. Far from it, extensive risk-based studies using hazard scenarios determine the number and types of barriers (preventative or mitigation systems or equipment) necessary to reduce the risk of major accidents to a level which is acceptable.

Whether this is carried out under the regulation of a safety case regime such as in the North Sea, or under the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) regulations in the Gulf of Mexico, the results are effectively the same: an extensive array of risk control and barrier systems whose design performance is sufficient to mitigate the residual risk down to a level where it is safe for people to live and work.

Crucial to this approach is the timely inspection and maintenance of process safety barriers, without which, the assumed performance cannot meet the standard to which it was designed. For example, a high-pressure shutdown valve’s success rate for closure and sealing is, say, 999 times in 1,000. To achieve this, pressure switches, signals, and closure mechanisms need to be properly inspected, maintained, and tested. Deferring such activities reduces the reliable performance of the system.

This system performance will have been used to take credit for reducing the risk consequences from a major accident hazard (MAH) scenario. Therefore, deferring inspection and maintenance has the inevitable consequence of elevating the MAH residual risk. The questions operators must answer are - by how much and whether this risk is tolerable?

The more daunting dilemma is when multiple activities are deferred. This shifts the overall MAH risk potential - perhaps to a degree where it may not be safe to operate. But how would operations or maintenance know if that is the case? And how can we be sure we are not inadvertently compromising safety for productivity or simply to meet a budget target?

Operators have a wealth of data streams and systems to help manage offshore assets. The unfortunate reality is that these systems are spread far and wide in silos across the business, making them often inaccessible in a useful manner to the majority. This often results in frontline people needing to make day-to-day activity decisions in the absence of current information. Data is the root of the problem. Consistent and effective risk management and mitigation solutions are needed to ensure safety is a strategic focus within organizations.

The global offshore oil and gas industry needs better tools to help understand and manage the increasing complexity of operational risk. Furthermore, these tools need to take into account the operational realities of each asset.

Fortunately, new techniques and software solutions are becoming available which can help operators identify, in real-time, the combined risk impact of decisions on plant safety. They use a more simplified approach focusing on the cumulative impact of multiple conditions or activities on specific barrier groups, in specific areas of the plant, at the same time. Intuitive software screens allow operations to be viewed in geographic space; in time; and by risk; and also in a predictive mode based on a work schedule. These systems allow operators to simulate the repair of impaired barriers and to see how this reduces elevated risks, thus helping to prioritize future work. Furthermore, the frontline and senior leadership can both understand the risks of work and activities as well as the status of their associated barriers.

The relatively new SEMS regulations in the Gulf of Mexico and the more mature safety case regulations seen in Europe and Australasia have an emphasis on process safety, barrier management, and more importantly, communication to all staff of the hazards and protections. Recruiting all staff in an effort to ensure all barriers remain effective will pay dividends. To achieve this, all staff must be in-the-loop in terms of risk potential. With squeezed budgets, reduced manning, and higher workload for those remaining, this becomes more challenging. So, now is a good time to invest in technologies which will help people in the field make better decisions and raise their awareness of consequential risks.

We need to get better at identifying hazards and their associated barriers, and we must make sure every employee understands their responsibilities to diligently mitigate operational risk.

Mike Neill

President, Petrotechnics USA Inc.

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