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New report: Chemical working environment in offshore petroleum activities

The authorities are challenging the industry to make an all-out effort to map and improve knowledge concerning chemical exposure and health risks. The reason is a new report which shows that the industry lacks an overall picture of the risks involved. This relates to the current situation as well as in a historical perspective.

The conclusion emerges from the report on chemical working environment in offshore petroleum activities, which the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway (PSA) has prepared on assignment from the Ministry of Labour and Social Inclusion (AID). The report was submitted on 1 June.

Chemical working environment has received considerable attention for several years, in part as a consequence of the fact that persons may have sustained long-term injuries as a result of exposure to chemicals quite some time ago. In 2005, a multi-party working group prepared the report entitled "Chemical exposure on the Norwegian Shelf", which formed the basis for the discussion of the chemical issue in Storting White Paper No. 12 (2005-2006) on health, safety and environment in the petroleum activities.

This new report is a follow-up to the White Paper. It points to several areas where clarification of exposure and risk factors is needed. A common denominator for some of these problems is that they are also applicable to land-based industry.

Good practices
Although mapping of exposure and health risk has been and continues to be deficient, it is also true that the industry has consistently maintained a high level of technical expertise, and the management and employees have insight into the hazardous elements associated with use of chemicals. The activities are also characterized by precautionary practices as regards work involving chemicals.

In recent years, specific requirements have been developed as regards chemicals. Most companies have established internal company requirements as regards the chemical working environment and quality-assured information about the chemicals in use. Measurement activity has grown at a pace in keeping with the development of knowledge and requirements. 70 percent of the measurements have been taken after the year 2000.

Despite this, the report reveals the need for an all-out effort to obtain a comprehensive overall picture of the exposure situation offshore. Therefore, the authorities are challenging the industry, both offshore and at the land facilities, to conduct extensive mapping of exposure factors that cover all relevant groups, work processes and chemicals.

Deficient documentation
The report concludes that the industry has limited documentation regarding exposure and health risk. This applies both to the current situation and in a historical perspective. Measurements have only been conducted for a relatively small number of work processes, primarily linked to exposure to drilling mud. Many of the measurements have not been followed up with qualified evaluations.

Therefore, the basis for the study of the individual employee's illness that may be caused by exposure, is deficient. It may also be difficult to implement effective measures that reduce health risks when there is no adequate basis for making decisions.

The reasons for this deficient mapping are complex:

  • In the early stage (1966 to 1980), knowledge and requirements were deficient. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the development of knowledge and regulatory requirements, as well as the establishment of management systems has improved the situation.
  • The Norwegian tradition of occupational hygiene has emphasized qualitative evaluations rather than measurements.
  • The industry has focused attention around a few, presumably high-risk work processes.
  • In the event of assumed high exposure, the companies have prioritized measures rather than documenting exposure levels through measurements.

Chemical exposure and cancer risk
Since 1997, the Cancer Registry of Norway has worked on a cancer study on the shelf. This study comprises a total of 28 000 persons with both short and long-term employment in the petroleum activities. Results of the Cancer Registry's study are expected in 2009.

The University of Bergen has conducted supplemental studies which include overviews of exposure to carcinogenic chemicals. They have also carried out a cross-sectional study of the risk of serious blood diseases. The latter study indicates that offshore employees may have a higher risk of leukemia than the general population.

Although several cancer-related activities have been implemented and are being planned, it is important that priority is given to follow-up studies and, to the extent possible, reinforcement of studies that are already underway.

In the petroleum activities, it is important to study exposure to benzene and other components that follow the oil and gas stream. Even though the oil and gas systems are normally completely closed, it is important to obtain more knowledge about exposure in connection with the opening of these systems for cleaning, inspection and maintenance.

The attention surrounding cancer risk at the Shell Refinery at Sola (outside Stavanger) in recent years further reinforces this recommendation.

Knowledge gaps must be closed
The mandate for the chemical project has been two-fold: Promote a common understanding of methods that can be used for historical risk exposure and obtain the status of knowledge in selected areas and recommend further efforts within research and development (R&D).

In its report, the PSA points out several areas where there is a need to clarify exposure and risk factors. Relevant activities which the industry has already implemented together with R&D groups are also highlighted. These activities show that the industry has had focus on the chemical working environment and is concerned with finding connections and solutions. The following are some of the industry's projects:

  • Chemical decomposition in connection with hot work and qualification of personal protective equipment
  • Oil vapor and oil mist in connection with drilling offshore
  • Development of carbon fibers (nanoparticles) with low toxic potential
  • Exposure to mercury in the offshore petroleum activities
  • Retrospective exposure studies on Ekofisk
  • Chemical exposure in connection with welding during diving operations

As regards historical exposure, the companies are responsible for contributing the best possible data. The PSA will contribute to ensuring that the technical process surrounding acquisition of historical data is as good as possible.

Cooperation among the parties
In order to extract existing knowledge regarding the field of chemicals, the project has involved technical expertise in relevant areas both within Norway and abroad. Representatives of the association Arbeidsskaddes landsforening (Association for persons who have suffered work-related injury or illness), which organizes about 150 people with health injuries that they suspect may be caused by chemical exposure, have also participated in the project.

The Safety Forum, which is the central tripartite arena for health, safety and environment in the petroleum activities both offshore and on land, has appointed a reference group for the project. The project has also made regular reports to the Safety Forum.

The PSA will discuss with the parties as regards how the results of the report should be followed up. The authorities expect employers and employees in the industry to establish a joint and binding strategy for continuing work on the chemical working environment.

Contact person in the PSA:
Inger Anda, press spokesperson
E-mail: inger.anda@ptil.no
Phone: +47 970 54 064