As employees worldwide begin to slowly transition into ‘business-as-usual’ operations, certain Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) measures must be applied to prevent the fear of a potential second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to adequate measures, employees must be aware and educated on the basic principles of proper use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), both inside and outside the work area.

According to Hazem Hegab, HSE advisor at Shell, “In the beginning of the COVID-19 situation, companies focused on developing or updating their pandemic plans in alignment with business continuity plans to ensure smooth running of the operation during such emergency and limitation of on-board personnel.” Hegab also added that, “the focus was to identify the business-critical personnel and take necessary measures to facilitate working from home process. In parallel there were development of new instructions and guidance covering social distance, hygiene, work location access checks in addition to plans of emergency response in case of positive cases. After three months there were plans of RTO (Return to Office) and reviews of office location to meet the new work structure under COVID situation.”

Risk Assessments and HSE Measures during COVID-19

Before returning to ‘business-as-usual’ operations, two essential steps must be taken: carrying out a risk assessment and implementing HSE measures. Essentially, there are four key elements that constitute a risk assessment. Carrying out a risk assessment will not only help to identify the workplace’s problem areas, but will also narrow down the potential solutions that could be implemented to minimize any and all health risks.

The first element is that the risk assessment will recognize work activities that could help in transmitting the virus (e.g. using equipment handled by multiple engineers on oil rigs or even in office spaces). The second element to consider is to properly identify employees with the greatest risk and exposure to confined spaces and other employees. Furthermore, the third element is assessing the level of exposure within the work space. Finally, the fourth element is to assess how the risk of contamination could be controlled. Once risk assessments have been completed, operations can commence with the relevant HSE measures.

For instance, there are three essential HSE measures. Specifically, these measures are social distancing, maintaining adequate sanitation precautions, and personal hygiene standards. As for social distancing, the main ways in which take place is to mark spaces on the floor for employees to stand on, add posters around the workplace to remind others to maintain a distance, let office-based employees work side-by-side rather than face-to-face, limit rotations on use of equipment and machinery, etc. As for sanitation precautions, this includes cleaning work areas, equipment and machinery between rotations, implementing hand sanitizer and hand washing facilities for employees, etc. Finally, in relation to sanitation precautions, the relevant PPE and/or Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) is necessary; this is inclusive of face masks, rubber gloves, as well as the conventional PPE for on-site employees such as hard hats, safety goggles, etc. These are the mandatory precautions necessary for workspaces to implement.

Business-As-Usual Pre- vs. Post-Coronavirus

Over the course of the pandemic, 42% of countries worldwide shutdown most workplaces and offices, with the exception of essential workplaces; this is inclusive of Egypt. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), as a result of lack of physical presence in the workplace, work hours declined by nearly 14% for employees with full-time jobs.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic (circa March to April 2020), employees were asked to either work from home (where possible), or continue working on-site under strict HSE measures. As per the given data, most employees, both full-time and part-time, worked in shared spaces and took the necessary precautions as advised by entities such as the World Health Organization (WHO), UK Government HSE, etc.

During the peak of the pandemic, before slowly shifting to ‘business-as-usual’ operations, as per regulations suggested by various HSE entities, it is essential for every organization to carry out a tailored risk assessment before continuing operations. The next step would be to conduct trainings and workshops via online platforms to make employees self-aware about precautions and ways in which health risks could be minimized while also optimizing operational efficiency. Then, the next step would be to bring back employees at 25% intervals based on the importance of each employee’s physical attendance. Upon successful transitioning, employees are encouraged to maintain implementing HSE measures and using PPE and/or RPE to avoid the potential risk of a second wave of the pandemic.

Towards the end of the pandemic, post COVID-19, WHO standards recommend that the HSE and PPE/RPE measures are to remain intact. This is not only to prevent a second wave of the pandemic, but to reduce risk and circulation of viruses and contaminations at all times. This suggestion is expected to also increase productivity of employees as their immunity systems are at low risk (i.e. less sick leave days are taken).Hegab also added by saying, “I believe it is not the HSE policies but the care value and leadership commitment to protect the health of the employees are the main core motives to affect the future operations. With time passing, the economic effect due to the reduction of demand became the key factor in setting strategic operations plans.”

Case Study

There are several brilliant examples of organizations in the oil and gas industry that have embraced the pandemic and taken the necessary precautions. For example, Schlumberger has created an “Outbreak Management Plan”, with the aim of providing a detailed management plan to deal with the consequences of COVID-19 depending on the national risk level. Additionally, a series of “COVID-19 Management Standards” has been developed as a baseline for workplace operational standards.

As a matter of fact, each COVID-19 management standard document provides details on hygiene at work, personal hygiene, social distancing precautions, cleaning and disinfecting, and, most importantly, how to handle a positive COVID-19 case in the workplace. These standards are applicable in each country in which Schlumberger is present. In fact, these standards are universal and the concepts can be applied in any oil and gas organization, especially in Egypt.

Schlumberger stressed that it considers their employees’ safety one of the most important aspects of the organization’s prime concerns. This is demonstrated as the organization has implemented a practical approach to minimize exposure to health risks. Exposure is minimized through travel limitations, smaller office capacities as well as decontamination procedures (e.g. sanitization of spaces). These are some of the ways in which a practical and efficient plan could be implemented to reduce exposure and health risks.

To conclude, there are several ways in which oil and gas organizations are now better prepared for emergency lockdowns and pandemics. Additionally, HSE policies and measures will continue to be implemented despite the pandemic’s route in the future.  Before employees conduct ‘business-as-usual’ operations, a proper risk assessment must be carried out. The crucial key element in this transition is to ensure that organizations follow suit and transition slowly, based on the success of operations. Following international standards is one way to develop better guidelines that could be applied universally so as to ensure that all employees have the same understanding of COVID-19 precautions. Finally, and most importantly, employees must be aware of the necessary precautions through trainings, workshops or even marketing campaigns.