For the past several months, most of the world had shut its doors, creating an eerie and deafening silence among the oil and gas industry. Now, gradually, the world is beginning to reopen its doors in a cautious and careful manner, with a sense of fear and anticipation still lingering in the air. As the world is getting back to a new normal after the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis; now more than ever health, safety, and environment (HSE) measures should be a priority to all of us.

Safety Challenges

For the oil and gas industry, exploration and production (E&P) activities have witnessed a setback due to the pandemic, in addition to the much-needed oil production cuts issued by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+). However, getting back to a new normal on the field comes with risk as field personnel are always facing safety challenges. One of the main HSE issues when it comes to working in the midst of a pandemic is “[lack of] awareness where until a very short time many people were still handshaking. But now the face mask [became obligatory] by a decision from the ministry of petroleum and mineral resources,” said Ahmed Moussa, an HSE Engineer at a downstream company.

Additionally, there is the matter of social distancing which could be quite difficult to control during such times. Mohamed Fouad, a Senior HSE Engineer at the Gulf of Suez Petroleum Company (GUPCO), reiterated Moussa’s point, stating that masks are essential during these uncertain times, and added that maintaining social distance practices are essential. He noted that social distancing can be managed by issuing a rule that limits the number of personnel at certain places.

One aspect of safety that is usually discarded is mental health and its effect on employees and productivity. The conditions COVID-19 has exposed employees to include a different lifestyle by working from home, which has proven to be a double-edged sword and it was bound to take its toll as time passes. Mohamed Nassar, HSEQ Manager at Cheiron, weighed on the topic noting that “those human interactions we take for granted on a daily basis – passing someone in the coffee corner, having a quick briefing, whatever the daily rhythm might be – you don’t realize how efficient those interactions can be until you’re trying to manage that remotely.”

Leadership and HSE

Drawing on Nassar’s point, management certainly plays a role in regulating and implementing HSE guidelines, but more importantly, is identifying the qualities of good leadership. To Senior HSE Engineer Rana ElKady, good leadership begins with “the human element, [as it is] the most important element at the organization in parallel with the continuation of productivity and work.”

Managing such an unprecedented crisis like the pandemic is not an easy task, as crucial and necessary decisions need to be taken quickly. On his part, Moussa noted that the management role did not meet the par as “they refused to reduce employees beyond the prime minister’s decision and they were too late to distribute facemasks to workers.” Another mishap taken by management was the refusal “to assign medical vacation on suspicion of corona[virus] symptoms until many confirmed cases had been reported,” added Moussa.

Infection is not the only concern that management is worried about, but also the accidental injuries in the workplace. According to the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), approximately 25,195 days of work were lost as a result of work-related injuries in 2018. Such actions, or lack thereof, do not only compromise the safety of personnel and their families, but they contribute to halting production as well.

HSE Manager, Nassar, mentioned several qualifications that should be in an effective leader including leading by example and promptly challenging any unsafe behavior, while also keeping an eye on significant risks and implementation of adequate controls. Additionally, the responsibility of acknowledging HSE risks and paying attention to the danger surrounding the workplace should not only concern management but it should be acknowledged by personnel as well. A paper entitled Study on the HSE Management at Construction Site of Oil and Gas Processing Area, published in 2012 indicated that about 76.41% of all serious incidents are a result of human’s unsafe behavior.

In times like these, communication is of paramount importance and leaders should play a role in creating a safe environment for employees to voice their concerns. The International Labour Organization (ILB) published a report on Occupational Safety and Health and Skills in the Oil and Gas Industry Operating in Polar and Subarctic Climate Zones of the Northern Hemisphere denoting the importance of effective communication in yielding better results by creating a safe space to speak up, incidents can be limited or at least eliminated with time.

Nassar appealed to the same ideal that communication is essential in ensuring the safety of employees “various studies have found that social support increases our resilience and ability to cope. Listening to your employees is one effective way to make them feel supported and learn what they need.”

Beyond the Pandemic

COVID-19 might have the spotlight at this time, but like everything else, it is bound to disappear. However, the pandemic has given HSE a push in the right direction, it has created a collective consciousness about the importance of HSE. It also brought back the attention on the HSE reporting mechanism and its need for expansion and to be included within the digital transformation plan, as Moussa noted.

The reporting mechanism needs to be efficiently developed to crush the consequence of the ongoing blame culture. ElKady stated that it leads to a failing system that begins with [a] fear of reporting; “[it] leads to wrong decisions and a failure in the production process and can lead to accidents at the organization with a big loss in production and market reputation.” Instead of blaming others, ElKady suggested that providing training sessions to prevent any further incidents and cultivating a culture of responsibility is more efficient.

Despite the worldly fallout that accompanied the pandemic, it shined the light on some of the fragments in the oil and gas industry. It has provided a path of transformation towards a new revolution of change.