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Mechanical pipe handling: Reviled requirements paid off

The demand for mechanical pipe handling on offshore facilities aimed to get people off the drill floor – a dangerous place to be, with many accidents including serious injury and death.

Success in the long term

The story of mechanical pipe handling confirms that innovation requires time, money, commitment – and courage.
These regulatory requirements created a storm in the industry when they were introduced in the 1990s, but worker safety improved sharply.

History also demonstrates that the industry must see the challenges, be innovative in finding good solutions and not least display the ability to adopt newly developed equipment. Mechanical pipe handling is now also taken for granted internationally. It represents a success story.

The PSA is now working to achieve the same outcome for offshore lifeboats.

One of Norway’s most controversial offshore regulations was introduced in 1992. It called for remote handling of all tubulars less than 20 inches in diameter on the drill floor and in transit from the pipe racks.

“It was clear to everyone that working conditions for people on the drill floor were unacceptable,” says Øyvind Tuntland, the PSA’s director for regulatory development.

“Crews had to handle a lot of heavy equipment in motion both horizontally and vertically on uneven floors slippery with mud and other muck.”

He was appointed head of the drilling section at the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) at the same time as the disputed regulation appeared.

“Joining the NPD in mid-1992 was like landing in the middle of a war. Formulated as mandatory, the regulation meant that all fixed installations and mobile units with drilling facilities had to be extensively modified.

“Another major problem was the lack of standardised remote control solutions for the drill floor which met the new rules. This meant that systems had to be specially designed.”

Many different prototypes installed in the first few years had not been adequately tested and failed in use.

The disconsolate mood was reinforced by a slump in the petroleum industry during the early 1990s, with a poor rig market and low day rates.

A number of complaints about the new requirements and the way they were applied by the NPD also winged their way to the ministry. None were accepted.

“The main reason why the government’s view prevailed was that the extra costs for the industry could not outweigh the social benefit of adopting the regulation,” explains Mr Tuntland.

“Heavy, physical and risky work on the drill floor, which had caused so many serious accidents, was no longer acceptable either off shore or by comparison with conditions in land-based industry.”

The first formulation of the requirement for remotely operated handling appeared in the 1980s, but did not become mandatory until 1992.

With hindsight, the process of making this demand compulsory was not ideal.

During the public consultation, the industry dismissed it almost as a castle in the air while the NPD gave more weight to socio-economic considerations than to the financial impact for the companies.

Discussions between the industry and the companies on one hand and the authorities on the other were accordingly conducted in fairly sharp tones.

“We were roundly abused both on the phone and in meetings,” Mr Tuntland recalls.

“And I remember being booed when giving a paper at a drilling conference. Tempers ran fairly high for a time.”

After a few tough rounds, however, the climate between the industry and government improved. A two-year transitional period was part of the regulation, and the

NPD took a pragmatic approach to applications for extensions to the deadline during the 1990s.

It was necessary not least to gain adequate experience with the equipment and to ensure that pipes with both large and small diameters could be handled.

The key job was to commit all operators and rig contractors to upgrade existing facilities. Where new installations or rigs were concerned, the rules were enforced more rigorously.

The demand for mechanical pipe handling was undoubtedly a success story for the Norwegian authorities, and for the country’s petroleum industry.

“Serious incidents, including ones with tragic outcomes, continue to occur during lifting operations on the drill fl oor,” Mr Tuntland concedes.

“All the figures nevertheless show that this regulation gave safety a boost. A drill floor was perhaps the most dangerous workplace in Norway until its introduction.”

It also gave part of the supplies industry a shot in the arm. Hitec, under the leadership of founder Jon Gjedebo, was among the first to develop technology for remote pipe handling.

An industry worth billions of kroner thereby grew up in the wake of the regulatory requirement.

Although specific demands for mechanical pipe handling have not been incorporated in the regulations of other countries, this technology also dominates the international scene.

That is not only because safety improves, but also because experience shows that it reduces downtime and thereby makes drilling more efficient.

“The whole world manufactures and uses such systems now, whatever the regulatory requirements,” acknowledges Mr Tuntland. “But Norway showed the way, and that the impossible was possible all the same.”

This article was published in the publication "Safety - status and signals 2010-2011".