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Tired Threat: Fatigue among offshore personnel

Fatigue among offshore personnel can be extremely hazardous, and is often made worse by poor sleeping conditions. The Norwegian authorities have now launched a crack-down in this area.

This articles was published in ">The Norwegian Petroleum Diary No.1/2003
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Newspapers in Norway have made a joke of the fatigue issue under such headlines as “Snoring shuts down the North Sea”. In reality, this is a deadly serious problem.

“The authorities talk a lot about raising people’s awareness of health, safety and environmental issues,” says Halvor Erikstein, occupational hygienist and
organisation secretary in the Federation of Offshore Workers Trade Unions (OFS).

“In reality, it’s physically impossible to be safety-conscious when you’re groggy from lack of sleep.”

He believes that too little attention is paid to fatigue when things go wrong offshore, and that workers are often unjustly made scapegoats in the event of accidents. In his view, too much attention is focused on possible technical errors without taking account of the human and physical factors which might be involved.

An invisible red thread connects thousands of tragedies on motorways and in workplaces around the world - including disasters such as America’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 and the Exxon Valdez wreck in 1989.*

This common link is mental and physical fatigue.

“Our investigations and many international studies have revealed the impact of poor-quality sleep and shift work,” says principal engineer Øyvind Lauridsen in the NPD’s working environment network.

“The resulting tiredness reduces alertness, slows reactions, produces poor decisions and generates more errors.”

The complex issues associated with offshore fatigue and safety levels can be grouped under two headings shift work and shared cabins.

Offshore operations run around the clock throughout the year. Shift work helps to boost total output, and a certain level of continuous staffing is needed to ensure acceptable safety on the installations.

“A number of studies show that shift workers run a higher risk of developing problems with their mental and physical health,” says Mr Erikstein.

“People are designed to sleep at night and be active during the day. Our bodies are programmed to a circadian rhythm, a mental and physical cycle which affects our tiredness and alertness.

“We secrete more urine in the morning than at night, for instance. This means that shift workers who sleep during the day will wake up more often than normal.”
He points out that the need for rest is reinforced by ageing. Studies show that older offshore workers are more sensitive to disruption when they share a cabin.

“They also find it more difficult to adapt to changing daily rhythms, with night working and irregular eating and sleeping routines. Machinery and helicopter noise compound the problem.”

Statistics show that industries with round-the-clock working suffer an unusually high proportion of serious accidents between midnight and 06.00.

Sharing cabins has long been a normal arrangement offshore. When activity on an installation is particularly high, the lack of space can also lead to “hotbedding” - when one berth is used consecutively by a series of occupants.

“Cabin sharing isn’t ideal,” says Mr Lauridsen. “People have very different sleep patterns, and somebody’s sleep quality can be sharply reduced by the noise made by the other occupant.

“In a demanding job, such sharing can accordingly represent a safety risk. Hotbedding is also undesirable and should only be used when extra staff are needed to restore critical functions.”

He argues that operators should adjust the level of activity to cabin capacity, and must strive to plan work methodically and carefully. That would ensure in turn that accommodation is available for the extra crew needed during maintenance campaigns, turnarounds, modification projects and tie-ins.

“Another option is to convert twoberth cabins to single occupancy. That would cost between NOK 700 000 and NOK 1 million per fixed installation on the NCS. “But it would be drastically - cheaper for mobile units because the work can be done at land, and the extra cost of single cabins will be very small for completely new installations.

“Should additional capacity be required for relatively short periods, chartering a flotel could be the solution.”

“Norway’s existing offshore installation fulfil the regulations prevailing when they were built,” observes Per Otto Selnes, deputy head of the Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF).

“It would be unacceptably expensive to eliminate cabin sharing on older facilities. And it’s also expensive to build new units with enough single berths for every imaginable need.”

He says that the OLF respects and understands the desire of offshore workers for their own cabin, but points out that the authorities accept sharing for brief, defined periods. “No absolute ban has been introduced, in other words. But the NPD is seeking to tighten practice in order to ensure that operators plan to avoid cabin sharing.”

Mr Selnes emphasises that the OLF wants the negative aspects of sharing to be balanced against other disadvantages such as shuttling, night work and unreasonable extra costs.

“We’re concerned that overly strict enforcement of the new guidelines could mean that oil fields are abandoned too early because costs become excessive and profitability too low.”

“The extra investment would pay off in the long term both financially and in health terms through a positive impact on safety and by avoiding serious incidents,” counters Mr Lauridsen.

“We’re charged with ensuring that the provisions adopted recently by the Storting (parliament) on safetyfriendly rest are implemented.

“Our aim is to enforce the rules on a professional basis, and to ensure that the end result benefits offshore health and safety.”

He explains that the NPD expects operators to adopt measures quickly to ensure that their employees receive the rest required for safe working.

“But single cabins for everyone is not a requirement. The new rules make it possible to choose between several possible solutions.

“What the regulations demand is that all offshore workers, regardless of who employs them, must be able to sleep without disruption and normally alone.”

However, Mr Lauridsen makes it clear that shuttling from one installation to another is not an acceptable solution to the problem. “And the known negative effects of shift working on safety and health mean that we want operators to plan work at night only when this is necessary for acceptable operation.”

*Sources: National Transport Safety Board, 1990, and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 1979.