HSE Special Report: Safety Matters

With automation now part and parcel of the industry's day to day operations, we look at how important a role it plays in driving health and safety standards, while also helping instill a culture of awareness and compliance among staff

Innovative technology can help operators keep up with lower occupational exposure limits.
Innovative technology can help operators keep up with lower occupational exposure limits.

Technology has penetrated almost every aspect of refining and petrochemical operations, with many believing it has made them safer, more secure and less harmful to the environment. Process automation now more than ever allows workers to perform their duties without even leaving the control room, while smart equipment can detect, predict and prevent potentially life-threatening situations.

“Adopting technology has brought about a number of health and safety improvements since I started in the industry 30 years ago, and we can see the benefits today,” Bernard Sanseau, drilling manager at Total Abu Al Bukhoosh, told RPME.

“Automation brings additional layers of safety. Now it is possible to work remotely from a ‘cyber chair’. It is a completely different way of looking at things. At Total Abu Al Bhukoosh, we marked 1,000 days without a single Lost Time Incident (LTI) and automation has played an important role,” Sanseau added.

The oil and gas industry, especially the refining and petrochemical ones, have been known for their conservative approach to adopting new technologies, but those days are long gone now. Both refiners and petrochemical producers are operating under new and much more challenging dynamics, with worker safety, increasing productivity and improving environmental footprint occupying a prominent role within the organisaiton.

Technology once again is seen as the key enabler to achieve these targets leading operators to drop their scepticism and embrace the latest innovations on the market.

“This is not simply due to the availability of technologies, but also because of the increased capabilities of technology providers to proof test the new technologies more quickly and with improved reliability,” said Ghassan Barghouth, vice president, oil & gas and industrial segments, MENA, Schneider Electric.

“Safety and security have always been a top concern for the industry, particularly in terms of ensuring the safety of plant, equipment and people, as well as meeting environmental standards.

“With telecommunication networking at such an advanced stage of saturation on existing platforms, process automation system implemented with safety and security provides immense benefits for operators to not only monitor their operations in real-time, but also perform all necessary controls on remote and unsecure locations from a central hub,” Barghouth added.

One of the main causes for accidents in an industrial environment is the lack of understanding when it comes to risk. According to Ken Ume, director of product marketing at Petrotechnics, innovative uses of technology can help operators visualise and better manage operational activity and risk.

“With this kind of technology, organisations explore opportunities for improvement that can easily get lost in the complexity that makes up most modern operational environments. All too often deviations in process safety, where barriers become impaired, can be lost or misunderstood because it is difficult to connect them to daily operations. Deviations in process safety barriers can lead to increased downtime and in the worse cases — to major accidents.”

Stuart Douglas, regional manager for Petrotechnics in the Middle East, added: “We have a product called Proscient. It is a software application that brings a common language of risk, or a common view of risk across an organisation’s operations from the frontline activity right up to the board.

“It allows everybody to collectively see what the risk is to safety and what the risk is to the business. Once you have looked at all that operational common view of risk and made sure you have mitigated it all through your barrier management and so on, it gives an operation a more streamlined process.

“On the back of that, what it will do is, it will give the management of an organisation the chance to prioritise maintenance, or what they really need to get done on the plant in a more efficient and safer manner, which again, brings optimal performance and a heavy return on investment.”

Another technological trend poised to improve the industry’s safety records is mobility. Employees now more than ever have access to mobile devices at their work place, using them as an information sharing platform to alert their coworkers about an issue spotted on the plant or report an operations anomaly.

Ronauld Weeks, advanced solutions business development manager at Honeywell, believes that mobile alarm and safety alerts for phones and tablets can help to significantly improve process safety by limiting deviations and performance gaps.

“Operating in industrial oil and gas and petrochemical facilities can be a risky activity due to the nature of the business, the number of parameters which must be monitored and controlled, the number of people involved in the operation, the numerous processes and procedures which need to be followed and the need to protect the environment,” he said.

Mobility, according to Weeks, can help increase and enhance situational awareness among oil and gas workers. However, companies need to do more to fully realise its potential. The UAE enjoys an almost 100% mobile penetration among workers, according to Weeks. This is more than what the US has, and though that number may be lower for low skilled, low paid workers, it will likely increase in the future as living standards among developed and developing nations continue to improve.

Ignoring such rapidly developing trends like mobility can act as an impediment to a more robust health and safety culture in the oil and gas industry in the region.

“The power of mobile notifications in promoting situational awareness. For the first time in human history, you can tap two million people on the shoulder or you can tap a group of operations experts in real time.

“From computers in our offices, to computers in our pockets, mobility is a critical factor in mitigating risk. Knowing when something might happen could make a significant difference between life and death,” said Weeks.

Refineries are extremely dangerous environments that combine almost every work hazard out there. From working at heights and handling combustible materials to inhaling potentially lethal fumes and gases, the risks to workers’ health and safety are significant and if left unmitigated can lead to potentially life-threatening situations.

“One of the things in oil and gas that is really prevalent is working in confined spaces,” Theuns Kotze, regional managing director, BSI Middle East and Africa, told Oil & Gas, RPME’s sister publication.

“One of the common areas of accidents and injuries is getting into confined areas such as tanks and holes, climbing onto a pipe or into the bottom of a big vessel; the reason for going there is for maintenance — to weld or fix it, to replace a catalyst, etc.”

According to Kotze, the adoption of smart equipment and new innovative technologies are playing an increasingly important role in detecting work hazards and preventing major accidents at the work place.

“In confined spaces, there are electronic devices that you can wear that will tell you immediately if the oxygen drops. There are lots of smart measuring equipment that can identify the range of gases present in an area, if there are any explosive gases present where you are, or even the level of radiation.”

Heat stress is another major hazard, especially for workers based in the Middle East, where temperatures can reach near record levels in the summer.

Seeking to address this challenge head-on, manufacturer of cooling apparel TechNiche, has developed one of the most innovative Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) products currently on the market.

“HyperKewl Evaporative Cooling material is a unique fabric that absorbs and slowly releases water through evaporation protecting the wearer against heat stress,” said Paul Gilligan, general manager, Rapid-EPS, Middle East — TechNiche’s mother company.

After soaking in water for just one to two minutes, HyperKewl produces a cooling effect that can last up to ten hours.

To cool down the garment even further, workers can insert a so called ‘cool packs’ into the pockets. Using an innovative type of non-toxic carbon based liquid which freezes at 14 degrees Celsius, the cool packs maintain that temperature for two to three hours, raising the overall cooling effect of the garment to over half a day.

“We know our products can reduce heat stress in workers and this is an increasingly important topic for the GCC within worker welfare. They can also increase productivity significantly so in the long run, buying these products will save companies money.”

However, personal protective equipment, although absolutely essential to workers’ safety, are just one piece of the puzzle designed to keep employees out of danger’s way, as Ehsan Uddin, industrial hygienist at United Safety, explains.

“We can’t always rely on simple PPE for protection of employees when there is potential for exposure to serious health hazards.

“This is where the higher level controls and technological innovation play a significant role. For example, moving up from air purifying respirator to supplied-air respirator improves the assigned protection factor (APF) from 50 to 1,000 which improves the protection by 20 times.

“Better yet, technology can be used to eliminate the health hazard by engineering out controls. Technology also plays an important role in evaluating or monitoring health hazards.

“Keeping up with lowered occupational exposure limit (OEL) requires innovation of sampling equipment and method.”

In Uddin’s words, process automation and instrumentation can dramatically reduce the risk of worker injury. But ultimately, it will come down to people to implement best health and safety practices and follow the right procedures.

He said: “Just like safety, the effort for employee health protection has to come from both management and employees. The first step is recognition of the hazard. A risk assessment process can certainly help. Employers need to set up programs to educate employees about the health hazards they come across every day and share with them what controls are in place to protect the employees. Employees also need to take initiative to learn about these health hazards. It is highly advised that they review Safety Data Sheet (SDS) of any chemicals they work with and are familiar with the control measures.”

In addition, companies need to make sure the right set of rules and regulations have been implemented and followed. Although technology can play a role in monitoring and aiding compliance, it takes people and individuals to promote and foster a culture of a safety within the organisation.

“Oil and gas companies come from a well-regulated health and safety environment,” believes Kotze.

“If you name the well-known oil and gas companies in the UAE such as ENOC, ADNOC, etc. and the ones like Shell, Total and Chevron and all the other IOCs operating in the Middle East, those companies have very regimented type of procedures and ways of working. Over the years, the industry has almost gone beyond the local legislation. If you go to Shell in Oman and Shell in the Netherlands you will find the same type of regimented approach to health and safety, with the legislation part almost becoming a side issue because everything is based on what the perceived risk is.”

The oil and gas industry worldwide, particularly in this part of the world, has come a long way in improving its health and safety record. And the role of process automation in achieving this, especially in the last decade, cannot be overstated. But technology, although beneficial, isn’t omnipotent. Eventually, it all comes down to people to follow best practice and employers to make sure all the right rules are in place.

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