Offshore Safety - the factors influencing the effectiveness of offshore emergency management

Thursday, March 3, 2016             Comments

Oil and gas offshore installations are industrial towns at sea, carrying the personnel and equipment needed to access reservoirs thousands of feet below the seabed, and maintain continuous hydrocarbon production.

The dangers of working in the offshore oil and gas industry, including fire, explosion, blowout, collision with vessels, suffocation from toxic gases, failure of installation structures and extreme weather conditions, are among the most serious imaginable.

Emergency situations are unpredictable and unique in nature and prevention of a minor incident escalating into a major disaster is highly dependent on the planning, implementation and effectiveness of emergency response.

In a 'man overboard' situation, emergency response systems are not concerned with control over initiating events; they are only concerned with control over escalation to such an extent that it is necessary to facilitate the rescue and medivac of the person. In other words, emergency response systems are concerned with managing emergencies, not preventing emergencies from occurring.


There have been major changes in offshore safety regimes during the last decades. On the basis of accumulated experiences (including some major incidents), from rigid prescriptive approach to more flexible goal setting approach, known as the Performance Based System.

In the United Kingdom, emergency response systems are addressed in the Offshore Installation (Safety Case) Regulations (SCR), and more specifically in the Offshore Installations' PFEER (Prevention of Fire, Explosion and Emergency Response) Regulations.


The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible for regulating the risks to health and safety arising from work in the offshore industry on the UK Continental Shelf. The HSE in relation to other stakeholders is the focal point for communication, enforcement and strategy formulation. The HSE core activities in relation to offshore business include: safety case assessment, inspection, investigation, enforcement, producing guidance, standards, research and engaging with stakeholder groups.Emergency command capabilities

Since the emergency command capabilities of an offshore management team lie at the heart of the emergency response system, the requirements for specific training programmes and standards are far more necessitated. It is worth noting that these emergency command capabilities can only be developed and assessed using scenario based training and assessment techniques conducted by expert organisations. There is a recorded case that shows a lifeboat coxswain who was returning from offshore training, was not able to start his lifeboat on his own installation as the system was different from the one he had in his onshore training. Emergency Response and Rescue Vessels Association, Marine Accident Investigation Branch, Oil and Gas UK as a Trade union are other stakeholders which influence offshore emergency arrangements. They set standards for such critical sectors and some are part of emergency arrangements.

Major disasters

Following the Piper Alpha disaster, offshore operating companies reviewed their 'software' procedures such as the permit to work system and initiated 'hardware' changes based on lessons learned from the disaster. These included provision and installation of emergency shutdown valves, subsea isolation system, prevention of smoke and gas ingress to accommodation, provision of better marking and screening of emergency walkways and improved fire fighting systems. The immediate response from the industry was estimated around 1.9 billion pounds.

All major disasters lead to tightening of the regulations. When the Piper Alpha incident happened, all the North Sea woke up to reality and lots of modifications were made on hardware and software sections of emergency arrangements. Since Piper Alpha all parties involved in the offshore industry have been working together in order to improve and harmonise their process and documentation in the area of emergency response.

Ageing offshore installations

Many of the offshore platforms have exceeded their original design life or are about to exceed their originally intended design life. However, with the depletion of hydrocarbon reserves, the increased use of enhanced oil recovery technologies and the advent of carbon dioxide sequestration, there is an increasing need to extend the life of the existing platforms.

Emergency equipment manufacturers and design issues

A large amount of life saving equipment is being used by companies who are active in offshore oil and gas installations, but the usage of some life saving equipment has caused some safety concerns and in some cases it has led to injuries and fatalities. Based on research performed by the Health and Safety Executive, most emergency response and rescue vessels masters and their crews have little confidence in the effectiveness of the mechanical recovery devices used in emergency situations.

Totally Enclosed Motor Propelled Survival Craft (TEMPSC) or lifeboats are the typical equipment that has caused many incidents and fatalities during drills, maintenance or launching in emergency situations. The study carried out by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch in the UK revealed that 12 fatalities and 87 injuries were reported from UK-flagged vessels in relation to life boat incidents between 1991 and 2001.

Organisational factors

In the UK, the oil and gas companies work fairly independent to their own contingency plans. The major oil and gas companies have a strong culture of investigating incidents, disseminating the findings of incident inquiries wherever they may occur and sharing the lesson learned from non-conformities that have been identified. This leads to the improvement of offshore safety among other oil and gas operators who are working in the North Sea. The majority of best practices used by oil and gas companies became standard for other organisations.

Advanced technology

Due to technological development, newer installations tend to be smaller, cherish greater automation, have more advanced emergency alarm systems and escape equipment and are operated by greater automations and fewer personnel compared to the earlier generations.

Nowadays the metrological forecast plays a major role in predicting weather patterns, particularly when the weather is poor. This is a big assistance to emergency services for organising their missions and facilities.

Computer technology is commonly used to help devise evacuation procedures, and safety analysis packages are now available that calculate the risk of incidents on oil and gas installations.

This is good news for offshore safety, but ranges of incidents during the use of life-saving equipment and failure of safety critical systems in major disasters indicated that advanced technology still remains unreliable for most people working in offshore installations. The literature also indicated that even these developments had not assisted some of the areas of emergency arrangements where according to some, development was needed.

Prevention of helicopters capsising into the water during a crash is one of those undeveloped areas.


Various regulators have different degrees of effectiveness on emergency arrangements in the UK offshore oil and gas installations, but the HSE acts as a focal point among other regulators in setting regulation, inspection, enforcement, and strategy formulation for enhancing offshore safety in the UKCS. Major disasters have caused the improvement of offshore emergency arrangements by making authorities set tougher regulations and develop hardware and software sections of the UK offshore emergency arrangements.


Article Tags

United Kingdom West Europe North Sea Subsea

This article is for information and discussion purposes only and does not form a recommendation to invest or otherwise. The value of an investment may fall. The investments referred to in this article may not be suitable for all investors, and if in doubt, an investor should seek advice from a qualified investment adviser. More

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