Photo of offshore worker

Reducing risk for the vulnerable

Some groups of employees are more exposed to occupational injuries and ill-health than others, for many reasons. But operational parameters are often involved.

The costs associated with an extra risk of injury or illness at work are substantial, not only for the people affected but also for their employers and society as a whole.

“We were well aware that risk was unequally distributed between different groups of workers offshore,” says principal engineer Sigvart Zachariassen at the PSA.

“Eventually, however, we began to appreciate that this distortion was unreasonably large and wanted to take a closer look at it.

“Two electricians, for example, largely do the same work but are nevertheless unequally exposed to risk. What differentiates them often lies in operational parameters they experience.”

One of these electricians works for an operator in accordance with a carefully planned and well-resourced maintenance programme, he says.

“Their employer has good systems for risk assessment and management, and the financial resources to implement improvement measures.

“The other is employed by an agency for temporary personnel on a short-term assignment for a contractor, doing campaign maintenance which involves monotonous work under high pressure.

“Follow-up resources at the agency are limited and its risk management systems are weak. In other words, same tasks, different parameter. And thereby different risk.”

The PSA defined groups exposed to risk as a main priority in 2007, and conducted a number of supervision activities in this area over the subsequent seven years.

This commitment has covered all facilities on land and offshore. In addition to the PSA’s traditional supervision through verification, the companies have carried out self-assessments.

Most importantly, the work has yielded results. “Thinking in terms of groups is now recognised in the industry with regard to risk management,” observes Zachariassen.

“Most companies today have an understanding of the concept of groups particularly exposed to risk.”

In many of its supervisory activities, the PSA has been especially concerned about operating parameters in contracts – on other words, terms typically set by the operator.

“We initially encountered great scepticism in seeking to look more closely at contractual aspects,” says Irene B Dahle, who worked with Zachariassen on the main priority from 2007.

“That’s changed. We now see that both operators and contractors have become more conscious that it’s not enough to have the right HSE terms in the contract. Other conditions are more important in determining whether a fully acceptable working environment can be achieved.”

She point out that a fixed price contract and the use of key performance indicators (KPIs), for example, may create increased pressure for rapid execution.

“It’s also become more usual for ISS contractors to work directly for the operator. Experience shows that the further out in the contractual chain you get, the worse the conditions for good risk management. So it’s usually better to cut out intermediaries.”

Contractors have also become better at managing risk for their employees, Dahle adds. “A few years ago, we audited an ISS contractor with no risk management systems. It’s now acquired a good understanding of this area.”

Despite the progress, both she and Zachariassen feel it will take time for all the companies to acquire parameters which allow them to manage risk in a good way.

The PSA will accordingly continue to pursue various types of follow-up. “Although groups exposed to risk are no longer a specific main priority, our work here goes on,” affirms Dahle.

“Operating parameters occupy a central place in our present main priority on management responsibility, which embraces both major accident and working environment risk.

“These worker categories are also an important element in our main priority on the far north.”

“Generally speaking, this approach is so well established with us that attention will continue to be paid to such employees – from many angles,” adds Zachariassen.

Sights set on scaffolding

The commitment to groups with a high exposure to risk has focused great attention on them. Scaffolders have become the most visible category – but unfortunately that took a fatal accident.

A 24-year-old scaffolder was killed in a fall from scaffolding on the Oseberg B platform in the North Sea on 7 May 2009.

The PSA’s subsequent investigation strongly criticised both operator Statoil and the contractors over inadequate safety measures for such personnel.

It found, for example, that none of the petroleum industry’s procedures and checklists for scaffolding concerned the people doing the actual building.

Instead, all the systems, training, routines and checklists were concentrated on the surroundings and the users of the structures.

The Oseberg B fatality led to a comprehensive shake-up of the documentation area, both at company level and in the industry as a whole.

Statoil produced its own manual for scaffolders, for example, and the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association published guidelines for the trade.

Standards Norway is also working at present to develop an industry standard for scaffolding with regard to personnel training and self-regulation.

In addition, the PSA has paid extra attention to the scaffolding business in recent years, with a number of supervisory activities conducted and more planned for 2015.

This continued monitoring reflects the scope of incidents related to dropped objects and personal injuries, which shows that risk management by the companies needs checking.

Tough trade offshore

Workers in the ISS sector are among the groups often identified as particularly exposed to risk. They are contractor personnel, and their terms of employment frequently contain incentives which can conflict with achieving a high level of HSE.

ISS employees often have lower pay and educational attainment than many other groups in the petroleum sector. Demand for their services fluctuates a lot and, because cheap labour does little to drive technology development, they still largely do manual work with hand-held tools.

Needle-scalers – hand-held devices used to prepare surfaces for painting – are among the worst offenders for adding to working environment risk. Their high noise and vibration mean they can only be used for an hour at a time.

The PSA is surprised that the industry still utilises tools with such restrictions, rather than automated equipment, when their contribution to the risk of occupational illness is known.

Entitled to an opinion

A basic principle in Norway is that employees exposed to risk must be involved in choices which are significant for HSE. But challenges still exist over worker participation.

Norwegian regulations for the petroleum sector are primarily based on performance-based (functional) requirements, which means that a number of solutions are adopted at local level.

That underlines the importance of everyone involved having a genuine opportunity to be heard, and the PSA has accordingly pursued a number of supervisory activities on such participation.

These form part of its commitment to groups exposed to risk, and relate to management of the working environment. Findings have been mixed.

“The established, legally required fora are largely in place,” reports Tone Guldbrandsen, the PSA’s contact with the unions. “At the same time, we see great variations.

 “These relate to the time devoted to participation, training and competence, and to the point in the process where union representatives become involved.”

She adds that the PSA also finds differences in the exchange of information between working environment committees at operators and contractors.

“Safety delegates at the latter often participate in decisions on what happens at the sharp end in the workplace, but seldom where preventive work is concerned.

 “Part of the reason for this is that they know too little about how they can utilise the regulations in order to discharge their role.

“Many people feel serving as a safety delegate is a poor career move. That’s a pity, because this role provides big opportunities to build expertise and influence HSE work.”

She believes that much of the solution lies with the unions. Although responsibility for organising worker participation rests with the employer, the Working Environment Act creates a strong link between unions and the safety delegate service.

The unions play an important role in nominating people for these posts and for the working environment committee in a company, and can help to strengthen the service through education and by giving it a higher profile.

“The safety delegate system is a resource which both unions and employers can use more actively in strengthening work on a safer working environment,” Guldbrandsen points out.

Employee participation will be in the spotlight for supervisory activities in 2015, and a key part of the PSA’s follow-up of Statoil’s Step improvement programme.

Quieter and cleaner

Wide-ranging projects directed against noise and the use of chemicals have followed in the wake of work with groups particularly exposed to risk.

Massive media coverage, political attention and pressure from the PSA led in 2007 to an industry project for improving the chemical working environment in the petroleum sector.

Part of the backdrop to this commitment, which ran until 2012, was a review by the PSA of company practice in the chemical area. It showed that the industry’s risk management was inadequate.

The project had a number of results, including the publication of a series of guidelines and learning more about chemical risk. Demand for new technology was also boosted.

At the same time, technical solutions were introduced for treating drilling mud with a method which significantly improves the working environment for several categories of personnel.

The PSA has been calling over a number of years for action and specific measures to reduce the risk of hearing damage in the petroleum industry.

A major commitment in this area was launched in 2011. Its ambitious goal was to identify the most important solutions to the risk of noise-related injury.

This Noise in the petroleum industry project has led to improvements in risk understanding at the companies, and not least boosted the commitment to sound reduction measures.

Results include a database with information on tools, noise and vibration related to various jobs, which make it easier to prioritise measures for groups with the biggest exposure.

Dedicated projects aimed at developing better methods for surface treatment are also under way.

The big industry projects on chemicals and noise are a direct consequence of the PSA’s main priority on groups particularly exposed to risk.

Both were entrenched in the Safety Forum, and organised as joint company/union/government projects administered by the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association.

Menace on the move

Much of the PSA’s supervision of groups exposed to risk over the past two years has concentrated on drilling and well service personnel, with the emphasis on mobile units. That will continue in 2015.

All drilling contractors on the NCS, as well as operators and well service companies, were brought together in 2013 to assess the risk of injury and ill-health in various occupational categories.

Also covering their views on operational parameters which are significant for risk, this exercise showed that many companies lacked an overview of risk in various working environment areas.

Nor were responsibility and roles related to risk management defined or communicated with sufficient clarity. The PSA followed up this and the other findings in activities during 2014.

“The companies have a fairly good overview of area-level risk, but have often failed to map exposure,” comments Eva Hølmebakk in the PSA’s working environment discipline.

“It’s not enough, for example, to take account of noise in an area where employees will be working. Self-generated noise must also be incorporated along with all other risk factors related to the activities being pursued.

“Only when such an overview is available can the required countermeasures be assessed. The companies still have a lot to do here.”

Hølmebakk has participated in a number of the supervisory activities, and says the PSA is not finished monitoring groups exposed to risk and working environment hazards on mobile units. “We’ll be doing more in 2015,” she emphasises.