By Sarah Samir

The oil and gas industry is a field full of health risks and hazards that may affect employees working in the site or people living in nearby areas. With the ending of the easy oil phase and the emergence of the difficult oil era, oil and gas firms, along with governments and high authorities, tend to work on mitigating these risks.

In addition, oil and gas companies sought obtaining licenses and adopting global standards in order to ensure the safety of the employees working in their fields whether offshore or onshore, and whether these fields are being explored through conventional or unconventional methods.

Health Risks

People working in the oil and gas fields are exposed to several hazards that can negatively affect their health. Maridive’s Offshore Projects Company, QHSE Manager and Industry Expert, Muhammad Fouda, explained to Egypt Oil&Gas that the hazards which affect the oil and gas industry can be classified into fire, falling objects, scaffold, lifting operation, unguarded machinery, working at height, unsafe access or egress, and being stuck by foreign body. “The risks faced in the oil and gas industry also include excavation, crane, electric, structural member, vehicle and forklift, diving, oil spill, and working platform hazards.”

According to the article Oil and Gas Health Effects, published by Earth Works, “Landowners and residents of oil and gas field communities are reporting health impacts that they believe are linked to environmental toxics associated with the oil and gas development activities in their area.” As informed on the article, “these reports include incidents of: asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, autoimmune diseases, liver failure, cancer and other ailments such as headaches, nausea, and sleeplessness.”

Moreover, the petroleum industry can affect the lives of its employees as “various forms of radiation and thermal extremes are also relatively common on offshore platforms. Exposure to extreme heat and direct sunlight in tropical areas and to extreme cold in high latitudes can become significant sources of health risk dependent on the geographical region of the world,” as mentioned in Karen Niven and Ron McLeod’s book, entitled Offshore Industry: Management of Health Hazards in the Upstream Petroleum Industry.

The oil and gas exploration process may also lead to fire and explosions. In 2010, for instance, “a well control event allowed hydrocarbons to escape from the Macondo well onto Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon, resulting in explosions and fire on the rig,” according to BP’s Deepwater Horizon Accident Investigation Report. The report further mentioned that “11 people lost their lives, and 17 others were injured” in the incident.

However, hydrocarbon leakage is not always caused by risky incidents. Sometimes, it is resulted from normal operations. The Petroleum Safety Authority Norway’s mentioned in their article Hydrocarbon Leaks and Fires that “40% of hydrocarbon leaks occur in connection with normal operation, whilst the remainders arise during other manual work on/at the facility.” Thus, as normal operations can already trigger severe risks to oil and gas staff, petroleum operators should ensure the safety of the sites they are working in.

Health Risk Management Techniques

The risks of hydrocarbon industries are not easy to control. Fouda stated that it is not possible to prevent 100% of the risks in the oil and gas; yet, reducing risks is not impossible. He explained, “We work to minimize the risk, reference to ALARP System, as low as reasonably practicable. So, the best way to minimize the risk is, for every task, to be SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound – in order to be able to manage it. In addition, we must focus on training and employees competencies to raise their safety culture to meet the task requirements.”

In order to control the health risks which the oil and gas employees are exposed to, each petroleum company should set plans to restrain exposure. Vietnam Manpower’s Business Development Officer, Chi Nguyen, stated in his article, entitled 8 Occupational Health Hazards in Oil and Gas Industry That You Must Know, the key measures to protect workers against chemical exposures. As he pointed out, an Exposure control plan (ECP) should include “purpose statement, responsibilities of employers, supervisors and workers, identification and assessment of risks, risk controls,  manpower education and training, written safe working procedures, hygiene facilities and procedures of decontamination, documentation, and health monitoring.”

In addition, petroleum firms tend to use facilities and techniques to control the emission of H2s. An article written by Krishaswamy Rajagopal, Rogério Lacerda, Ivan Slobodcicov and Eugenio Campagnolo, entitled Modeling and Simulation of Hydrogen Sulfide Removal from Petroleum Production Lines by Chemical Scavengers, explained that companies “inject expensive chemical scavengers in production pipelines so that the corrosion and operational risks can be minimized.”

Additionally, the article suggested that that “scavenging of hydrogen sulfide is the preferred method for production of crude oil containing low hydrogen sulfide levels from subsea wells, especially where the well is tied back via a flow line to a host facility at which there is no provision for H2S scavenging and/or where a H2S removal facility is too expensive and/or impractical to install.” Therefore, having a more advanced “atomization” helps the oil and gas operator to mitigate the production of H2S.

As such, in order to mitigate the health risks faced by the oil and gas industry, an operator should go through different stages. According to UK’s Health and Safety Executive article, entitled Health Risks, risk management goes through four stages.

The first stage is “identifying the health hazards,” in which the operators should spot the risks based on their knowledge and through consulting “occupational hygienists, nurses or physicians.” The second stage is “assessing the health risks,” through identifying and measuring the nature and duration of the risk as well as its effects. The third stage is the phase in which the operators “control the risks” by placing “engineered controls, procedural controls, personal protective equipment.” Meanwhile, the final stage is “mitigating the risks” through setting a backup plan “to act quickly, if there is a failure in control, to minimize any ill health effects,” as explained in the article.

IOP science’s book, Ecological policy in oil-gas complexes, HSE MS implementation in Oil and Gas company, explained that “internal audit of the first level is the internal audit in the Central Administrative Office and oil-gas complex, its arrangement and performance is carried out by auditors of Central Administrative Office.” The book added that in oil and gas complexes, the Departments of Environmental Protection and Occupational Health and Safety perform internal audits based on Standard/MS Document OHSAS 18001:2007 and ISO 14001:2004. Hence, petroleum firms are keen to secure the work climate in which they drill.

OHSAS 18001 Model

The OHSAS 18001 is “a management system dedicated to occupational health and safety,” which has been developed to work in line with ISO 45001 to “assist in the reduction and prevention of accidents and accident related loss of life, equipment and time,” according to IMS International’s article, entitled OHSAS 18001: Health and Safety Management Systems.

The article explained that, by obtaining the OHAS 18001 Certificate, a company is able to “enforce procedures for compliance with legislation, provide better identification of hazards and risk management, and promote teamwork and inclusion through setting objectives, targets and documented responsibilities. It also provides a platform for attracting lower insurance policies, maintaining a good reputation and proving due diligence to the marketplace.”

The OHSAS 18001 was originally set by “the British Standards Institution to provide uniform health and safety protections for workers worldwide, “ as the OHSAS 18001:2007 certificate helps in identifying and controlling the “health and safety risks, reduce the potential for accidents, aid legislative compliance, and improve overall productivity within the context of a management system,” according to Mireaux’s OHSAS 18001 consulting. Hence, the operator can ensure the safety of its employees and control the health risks faced by employees working in the hydrocarbon fields.

It goes without doubt that risks in the oil and gas business are part of its fundamentals. Nevertheless, energy companies are capable of minimizing the sector’s massive spillovers, placing safety of its personnel as a top priority. In this sense, countries should adopt a progressive approach by approving drilling operations that comply with international health and safety standards. Through the cooperation between the operator and the country’s government, the process of exploration and producing oil and gas could be handled with the least possible health hazards.

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