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Seeking better data

The focus on possible health damage from exposure to chemicals in the offshore sector, and the associated uncertainties, shows how important it is to identify and document all relevant risks.

The chemical working environment has attracted great attention for a number of years from both government and industry, partly because people have suffered long-term damage.

A working party drawn from employers, unions and the authorities was appointed in 2005 to clarify and improve knowledge about chemical exposure and health risks in the petroleum sector.  Chaired by the PSA, this team issued a report which formed the basis for the coverage of chemicals in White Paper no 12 (2005-06) on HSE in the oil and gas business.

As a follow-up to this policy document, the PSA published a comprehensive report last June on the chemical working environment in the offshore sector.

The petroleum sector makes extensive use of chemicals in such activities as drilling, production and maintenance.

According to the 2007 report, the industry lacks an overall picture of the risks posed by the chemical working environment, both at present and in the past.  It also identifi ed a number of areas where exposure and risk conditions need to be clarifi ed. The common denominator for all these issues is that they are also valid for land-based industry.

“The findings in the chemicals report show with full clarity that there are no shortcuts to good risk management,” says PSA principal engineer Janne Lea, who headed the project.

Despite considerable variation between the companies, they are conducting surveys and generalised risk assessments on a fairly large scale.  Most companies have established in-house requirements for the chemical working environment and quality-assured information about using such substances.

Measurement activity has also been rising in line with the development of knowledge and regulatory requirements, with 70 per cent of such work carried out since 2000.

“The companies have done a lot of positive work over the years,” says Ms Lea. “This includes the introduction of precautionary measures to limit exposure, such as protective clothing, ventilation and so forth.  “But there’s been a lack of unifi ed risk assessments.

Measures for improving the chemical working environment have often had the character of hasty action rather than long-term responses.  “Since the industry has done little to survey and analyse actual exposure over time, no basis exists for determining whether it could have caused a worker’s ill health over time.

“Robust solutions must be established to document exposure which may perhaps fi rst reveal health effects after 20 years. It’s not least diffi cult to implement effective measures which reduce today’s health risk when the base data is defi cient.”

Many companies have relatively good access to specialist know-how. But chemical expertise is often more limited in parts of the industry, and particularly among contractors.

“We’ve seen examples of personnel with little relevant professional background being responsible for establishing and managing chemical use and providing training,” says Ms Lea.

“Specialists are frequently left out when measures are adopted, which can mean that these solutions won’t always be fully effective.

“It’s questionable whether the industry would have organised the business in this way for areas which affect the risk of major accidents.”

Action plan
The OLF has undertaken to head the sector’s follow-up to the pilot project, and an extensive action plan has been drawn up.

Both the PSA and the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority are participating as observers on the management committee for this project.

“It’s important that the results now emerging from the industry’s commitment are communicated to all relevant parties,” says Ms Lea. “These include the companies, occupational health fora, research and development institutes and government agencies.

“We’ve also made it clear that the work being pursued by the OLF does not free the companies from their independent obligation to identify exposure and make unifi ed risk assessments. They must also continually absorb new knowledge and introduce possible new measures which reduce the risk of damage to health.”