Invisible killers offshore

Invisible killers offshore

Offshore platform managers are now engaged in radical cost-cutting exercises, but even the most insignificant shortcut on procedures can result in disaster. When it comes to fire safety, full functionality is non-negotiable writes Simon Rooks, Operations Director oil and gas, Tyco Fire & Integrated Solutions.

The oil and gas production sector is in the midst of a crisis. After years of growth and indestructible profit margins, the large-scale production of shale gas has triggered a decline in oil prices which has in turn brought about a period of intense industry shrinkage. PwC began its 2016 oil and gas predictions1 with a quote from the former Saudi Arabian oil minister predicting the end of the “Oil Age”. Global oil prices hit a low of $40 per barrel last year, down 60 per cent on their high in summer 2014. As a result, offshore platform managers are now engaged in radical cost-cutting exercises designed to maximise efficiency and trim the fat wherever possible.

However, budget cuts carry serious safety risks for the oil and gas sector, as even the most insignificant shortcut on essential procedures can result in a serious disaster. It only takes a single failed valve or nozzle in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to cause an uncontrollable fire. With such large volumes of explosive hydrocarbons in a confined space, every component of the fire suppression system is essential. Safety control is one area of asset management which operators simply cannot afford to scale back.

Prioritise deluge systems

It’s clear that the upkeep of safety management on platforms should be a priority, particularly given the number of active oil and gas assets running beyond their safe life expectancy. Some are at least 40 years old and many are older than 30 – old enough for safety systems to begin to weaken and corrode to a dangerous extent. In these conditions, a fully functional deluge system is essential to ensure platforms meet fire suppression regulations and remain safe places to work.

Unfortunately, effective protection against fire and explosions on older oil and gas assets is a large and expensive task, often requiring platform-wide remodelling. As a result, companies across the industry are having to look closely at their processes in an attempt to maintain essential fire and safety standards while simultaneously achieving a reduction in costs. For many, there is the risk that this will take the form of an unhealthy reduction in resources – delaying service callouts, for example – or an attempt to strong-arm fire and safety suppliers into a cheaper deal, which will likely lead to a reduced service level.

As such, many organisations are increasingly relying on technology innovations to help protect their assets and extend the life of installations. Research into the oil and gas industry’s priorities up to 20252 shows that the number one driver for investment in technical innovation is safety improvements (45 per cent) – which surprisingly tops both reducing costs (43 per cent) and accessing new reserves (29 per cent).  However, there is still resistance in the market to embracing innovations, and adoption rates across the industry must be improved to ensure safety remains paramount across operations.

Offshore obstacles 

One key challenge in fire suppression comes from the environment itself. Deluge systems on offshore oil and gas installations face particularly hazardous conditions as a result of salt water’s corrosive qualities, the presence of clogging marine debris and damaging rough weather conditions, on top of the industry-wide danger of hydrocarbons and toxic gases on board.

A key example of this is firewater deluge systems, which are the primary source of offshore active fire protection on-board an installation. As a Safety and Environmental Critical Element (SECE), they should be fit for purpose around the clock and function on-demand, to as-built design criteria. However, nozzle blockages within deluge systems are a common occurrence, due to corrosion, marine growth, salt crystallisation and other by-products of seawater. These blockages have a serious impact on the functionality of the system and greatly increase the risk of a fire running out of control. Many have looked to solve this problem by changing out the material of the pipework within their deluge system to various elastomers, CuNiFer and even titanium. However, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report on the impact of blockages concluded that nozzle blockages will still occur within the pipework regardless of the material from which they are constructed.

Redesigning deluge procedure

Even apart from the potential impact of technology developments, maintenance regimes themselves also contribute to the issue. The majority of operators currently employ wet testing to prove the compliance of their deluge system. This essentially means spraying tons of seawater through the pipework, causing the deposits and blockages described above. These blockages add a dangerous element of luck to the system’s ability to function fully on demand. There may be a second or third chance to pass a deluge test, but there is only one chance to suppress a fire.

As such, operators must consider innovative approaches, alternative service approaches and installation of anti-blocking devices to improve system reliability and resilience – dry testing of deluge systems, which can enable cost optimisation whilst maintaining compliance, without causing the run-of-the-mill damage which contributes to platform life-end. A dry-test regime enables the operator to reduce the frequency of corrosive seawater tests, reducing the likelihood of blockages and extending the operational life of deluge systems. Adopting this kind of innovative approach to routine protocols can make an enormous difference on the bottom line.

Resilience can also be significantly improved by installing innovative solutions to protect deluge discharge nozzles, to ensure all nozzles remain operational even if there is debris within the pipework. Coupled with environment-specific technology, this type of innovative service delivery method can save operators over 21 per cent per year over the remaining life of the asset, whilst at the same time ensuring essential system resilience. Many organisations fear they will be faced with a hefty bill if they wish to update and maintain a fully-functional fire prevention system. Today however, technology exists that can ensure system reliability and resilience can be met without costly infrastructure overhaul, for a tenth of the cost.

A shift in attitude

A significant change in culture and behaviours is also required to open the way for new ideas related to safety. The phrase “but we’ve always done it that way” has no place in the next generation of offshore oil and gas culture.

Fortunately, the oil and gas industry has come a long way in fire and safety management. The increased focus on legislation has had a huge impact. Regulations such as Safety Integrity Level (SIL), which focuses on risk reduction and system reliability, as well as Offshore Installations regulations around Asset Through-Life Extension ensure oil and gas platforms past their design life are safe to remain operational. These regulations force oil and gas organisations to closely examine and update many of their fire and safety processes.  If past disasters teach the industry anything, it’s that airtight safety protocols are non-negotiable, and that those companies which attempt to reap short-term savings by cutting corners are setting themselves and the wider community up for catastrophe.

What next?

The offshore oil and gas production sector is one of the most hazardous working environments in the world. Middle-Eastern operators have a responsibility to ensure their employees are fully protected and that marine conditions are not allowed to obstruct effective deluge systems. With innovative products and maintenance regimes, it is possible to achieve these aims without adding to the financial stress faced by all operators. High quality deluge systems and responsible budgeting don’t have to be incompatible. Marrying them together, however, will require decision makers to act now, taking advantage of the new options available to them before it is too late. When it comes to fire safety, full functionality is non-negotiable.