The work on offshore platforms, in mines, steelworks or shipyards is not carried out by machines alone! Everywhere, professionals are at work doing extremely difficult jobs under extreme operating conditions. From today, we will regularly report on this world of extreme work. We begin our series with “Platforms of peril”, a report on an offshore drilling rig.
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Platforms of peril
“Life on an offshore platform is a mixture of noise, grime and claustrophobia – and the smell of fossil fuel borders on nauseating,” says a seasoned rig worker. “And then there are the temperatures – we get the bitter cold of the wind-exposed upper levels and the intense heat from the platform’s own power plant below. Quite a contrast I can assure you.”
Typical two-week shift patterns see our worker complete 12 hours of toil a day, for 14 consecutive days. Hard work is par for the course in this most dangerous of working environments. Visitors only need to see the labyrinth of rooms separated by thick steel doors (to contain any blasts) to appreciate the high risks involved. After all, the core business of an oil rig is extracting highly flammable fluids from beneath the sea bed, burning a percentage off in an enormous jet flame and separating poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas from the petroleum.
“Every day we’re up against potentially deadly conditions,” he says. “We’re often working machinery and equipment at height, in windy, stormy conditions. It’s not easy up there. And due to the noise, we have to communicate by hollering at the top of our voices. I can easily imagine how it must have felt working high in the rigging on the tall sailing ships of yesteryear.”
Clear instructions are vital as any miscommunication or lack of concentration can easily result in serious injury, or worse. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, during the period 2003-2010, the US oil and gas extraction industry had a collective fatality rate seven times higher than for all other US workers.
Mistakes are unacceptable, even in regular day-to-day tasks such as flow line inspection, dismantling or repairing oil field machinery, fixing steam engine parts and boilers, and guiding cranes. These jobs are performed by a ‘roustabout’, a general labourer who provides help to whoever needs it.
“Being a roustabout is hard, manual work and by the end of a 12-hour shift, particularly a night shift, everyone is fighting fatigue.”
With an equally unusual name ‘Derrick’ operators inspect drilling rigs, repair pumps, ensure drilling fluid is flowing, align elements, guide lengths of pipe out of elevators and maintain rig equipment. Note: a fear of heights is not recommended in this role.
Other workers, such as engine operators, pump operators and rotary drill operators are also responsible for the recovery of lost casings, drill pipes and broken drill bits, yet another perilous and thankless task. Of equal danger is the role performed by service unit operators, who are faced with removing rods or tubes from holes, installing pressure control devices into well-heads, raising drilling rigs and driving truck-mounted units to well sites.
Safety is clearly paramount in all these tasks, meaning that rugged, reliable equipment is essential and potentially life saving. Among the capabilities for equipment such as hoists and cranes, for example, include operation in low, often cryogenic temperatures and sub-sea performance down to levels of 70m. This type of equipment must also be explosion proof, spark resistant and corrosion resistant, while also featuring emergency shut-off valves, fail-safe brakes and the potential to operate at inclines from horizontal.
Working on an offshore oil or gas platform is a tough ask, but with the right blend of knowledge, experience and equipment, objectives can be achieved not just for the good of the business, but for the billions of people in society who require energy and fuel on a daily basis.