The ups & downs of oil rig fall protection

Climbing, rotating equipment, man lifting present fall-related risks

hrough wind, snow, heat, rain and sleet, oil rig workers often grapple with another obstacle: elevation. Whether they are changing light bulbs, working on blowout preventers or greasing motors and pulleys, they conduct various tasks above ground level. Even for crews that are properly trained and equipped, sometimes accidents happen because of a sudden change they didn’t account for. Equipment moves fast and things happen quickly.

Fortunately, the Canadian oil and gas sector has a strong safety culture at the industry level. “It’s a highly collaborative industry especially when it comes to safety and the sharing of best practices,” says Erin Hoover, senior channel marketing manager, oil, gas and chemicals at Honeywell Safety Products in Pasadena, Texas. “Everyone wants to know lessons learned, look out for their backs and the backs of each other.”

“Sometimes maybe if it’s not a written law, it’s about what your neighbour is doing and what you are not doing,” says her colleague at Honeywell, Jack Miedema, business development, oil and gas, in Calgary. “There’s always opportunity for improvement.” Oil rigs are, without question, high risk places to work. “The work environment is the greatest challenge oilfield companies face,” says Marc Harkins MSA’s product group manager, fall protection, in Cranberry Township, Pa. “These companies work in environments where surfaces are slippery due to hydrocarbons, weather and many other hazards. They work in extremely stressful situations when working at heights.”

Every rig is different. Except in the case of “sister rigs” where two or three are built the same, rigs have many different configurations so fall protection systems must be customized. A risk assessment, conducted by a third-party expert, is the critical first step, and the only sure way to identify where the hazards lie.

Rig trouble spots

Here are just a few situations that present a fall-related risk:

Climbing: The derrickhand climbs the derrick ladder to access different areas of the rig for servicing, tripping operations (pulling the drill string out of the wellbore and then running it back in) and rigging up or down. He might make this climb of 100 feet or more several times per day. As well, maintenance workers must routinely climb ladders, structures, tanks and stacks, 20 feet to 100 feet off the ground. The problem with climbing is the risk of slipping because of grease, ice or a second of inattention.

Rigging up and rigging down: Safety preparedness is easier to achieve during routine tasks, when people and machinery are in regular operation. The unexpected happens more “when you install the rigs and pull them apart, because all kinds of things are going on at the same time,” says Ron Lapp, field safety co-ordinator for Ensign Energy Services in Calgary. Fall protection must always be worn, for example, when installing or removing guard rails.

Rotating equipment: Drilling and service rigs have a lot of rotating equipment, which requires everyone’s vigilance at all times. Most drilling companies try to engineer the hazards out, but sometimes people need to go up an elevated area to look down a hole or connect some rigging, and the unexpected happens. Besides the ever-present danger of being struck by rotating equipment, there is a risk of entanglement. To prevent fall protection gear from being entangled in the draw-works, rotating kelly bar, rotary table or other machinery, workers must remove their fall protection gear when it’s not needed. In addition, the rotating equipment should be equipped with sensors to activate warning alarms, and emergency stops that activate when workers or equipment enter the danger zone.

Man lifting: Only a man-rated hoist is meant to lift a person. Unfortunately, some rigs still use material-rated lifts for this purpose. Workers being raised on non-man-rated devices could be exposed to entanglement hazards, and these hoists are strong enough to pull a worker apart, says Lapp. Dangerous practices can result in a worker being propelled out of a bucket or off a lift.

Being up high during a fire: Workers at heights need escape systems in the event of fire, blowout or explosion. “If you drill deep enough, gas starts falling out of the well and it catches fire. Meanwhile the derrick man is up on the racking board and needs fall protection,” Lapp says.

There are emergency egress systems that can bring a derrick worker safely back to ground level in 30 seconds or less. Ideally, the worker should not have to connect or disconnect fall protection lanyards during a stressful emergency, but simply step (or sit) onto the safety system and be automatically lowered to safety.

Working near the hole left by the draw-works: “On the drive system that runs the block to pull the pipe out of the hole, when you take it out, there’s an opening there,” Lapp says. “When you pull it out, it turns into a fall arrest situation.” Rather than simply using a pipe and cable as restraints, the new, improved way is to install hard railing, much like what auto shops use to prevent mechanics from falling into the oil change pit.

Wearing fall protection

Fall protection gear must be mobile, lightweight, portable and modular to adapt to different applications. It must not interfere with smooth
operations especially for workers who wear it for an entire shift. There are many specialized items that enable workers to perform their duties on drilling rigs and production platforms, Harkins says. One such product is a derrick harness, which has several D-rings that enable a worker to maintain 100 per cent tie-off when working at heights. Another is a self-retracting lifeline (SRL) that gives derrick workers the ability to connect to their back D-ring while climbing up the derrick.

Since much drilling is done in winter, fall protection used in the offshore market must be resistant to rust due to the saltwater environment. Most companies working offshore choose to use a sealed SRL where there is no chance of damage to the internals of the unit. Designed for harsh environments, the individual components are dust tight and won’t freeze or corrode.

Every day, before putting on fall protection, the worker must thoroughly inspect it. If there is a broken, torn or punctured strap, clip, stitch or buckle, the gear is unsafe. The belt must snap into place without coming loose and the gear must fit the worker perfectly. Too tight is uncomfortable and too loose is dangerous.

Harnessing safety knowledge

Oil and gas companies may want to opt for hands-on training. Despite the best efforts of qualified instructors, they can only instil so much knowledge in a classroom setting. A basic course won’t show students what they will actually see on the rig.

“These young guys have no idea what a drilling rig looks like,” says Jennifer Abraham, Canadian training manager for Honeywell Safety Products in Edmonton. “They want hands-on training that is customized to rig workers.”

Finding ways to combat complacency is also top of mind. Abraham says oil sector clients have described to her how mindset can affect safety.

“Many rig workers today are between 18 and 35 years old,” she says. “They work in remote locations that are not always visible or easy to get to, so the work environment is sometimes a little more rugged and the attitude is simply ‘We’ll watch each other’s back.’ Some of them have told us they sometimes just make poor choices like working at heights without protection.”

By complying with safety regulations and arming rig workers with knowledge, safety equipment and support, drilling companies can and do continue to make a high risk industry safer.

Michelle Morra-Carlisle is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of Canadian Oil & Gas Safety