Will New Technology Improve Onshore Safety?27 October 2008
Safety in offshore fields is the subject of much debate and research but those working at onshore facilities have received less attention. New research into the effects of chemical exposure in onshore facilities could kick-start significant technological advancement in this area. By Ozge Ibrahim.
Technology is advancing to create cleaner and more environmentally friendly processes but there are few studies of how working conditions can affect the health of on and offshore workers. One of the few recent studies of this nature was published by the British Occupational Hygiene Society in 2003, which found an "excess" of leukaemia in mainly offshore workers.
There was no study into the occupational health of those at refineries and other such facilities.
The UN, however, is taking steps to raise health awareness in the industry by working to improve knowledge of safety in chemicals and processing operations.
The UN Economic Commission for Europe, as part of its Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), has laid down new guidelines aiming to ensure that "information on physical hazards and toxicity from chemicals be available in order to enhance the protection of human health and the environment during the handling, transport and use of chemicals".
To meet these criteria energy companies, including US giant ExxonMobil Chemicals, say they are working to improve employee safety and comfort. ExxonMobil announced its new awareness of health and safety following the expansion of its hydrocarbon fluid manufacturing facility in Singapore, designed to incorporate enhanced safety measures for staff.
Another company taking bold and practical steps to examine the effects of chemical exposure is Norway’s oil and gas giant StatoilHydro. The company has recently announced a new scheme to assess chemical exposure on workers carrying out onshore drilling operations, as part of a pilot project to test drilling fluids and treatment technology.
The test centre, built in collaboration with Norwegian company Cubility AS, will allow researchers to test old and new technology using the Mudcube, a new system that treats drilling fluids using a vacuum method.
The Mudcube, which operates as a processing unit, provides treatment for the fluids and cuttings, "representing a quantum leap in fluid cleaning" according to Cubility, which was awarded the ONS 2008 SME Innovation Award at this year’s event in Norway.
According to StatoilHydro, there is too little knowledge of working conditions in these environments. Project manager for the test centre Kjersti Steinsvåg believes that the "research results will improve our understanding of chemical exposure and may be used to improve the ventilation and drilling fluid technology as well as the working environment in general."
The centre, which is preparing to start research into the various fractions in the oil mist formed from drilling using sophisticated measurement equipment, is also expected to offer a solution to testing the environmental conditions that is cost-efficient compared to offshore sampling, said StatoilHydro.
Although StatoilHydro’s test facility will not yield conclusive results until late 2009, the company says it believes the future of testing for and ensuring better worker safety is promising. When it comes to changing old practices, however, Steinsvåg says she believes it could take a while to substitute existing technology because of the "conservative" nature of the oil and gas industry.
As energy companies across the board make the move towards more environmentally friendly operations and products, these greener processes will inevitably lead to more consideration and practical changes for the health of on and offshore workers.