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Tue 12 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Access all areas

Rope access specialists are targeting the upstream market with an array of in-house hydroblasting and NDT service packages.

Access all areas
Simplicity and speed of offering are vital components.
Access all areas
Ian Caffery, general manager of ArabianAccess Solutions.
Access all areas
Hydroblasting and non-destructive testing have been rolled out as typical service offerings by the Middle East’s leading rope access firms.
Access all areas
Billy Harkin, managing director of Megarme.

Rope access specialists are targeting the upstream market with an array of in-house hydroblasting and NDT service packages.

Upstream and midstream oil and gas installations offer some of the most hostile working conditions, and most complicated infrastructure, of any industry in the Gulf. From oil storage tanks to working at heights of over 100 metres cold-cutting steel on jack-up rigs, access to critical components is made doubly difficult by the stringent safety requirements imposed on contractors.

With this in mind, Oil & Gas Middle East sought out the leading rope access and hydroblasting experts in the Middle East, and found that for firms which can offer time and money saving service packages, business is booming.

Rope access originated in France and was imported in the UK in the early 1980s. Initially used onshore and accepted as a safe and cost effective alternative to traditional access systems such as scaffolding, rope access soon found its way into the offshore oil and gas industry. The leading firms operating in the UAE say that a rope access system can be set up safely and quickly and have the technician at the worksite in minutes where other access systems can take hours or even days to erect.

“The simplicity and speed of access to high or otherwise restricted areas for oil and a gas company is big business for us,” explains Billy Harkin, managing director of Megarme.

“Increasingly we’re being called out for offshore installation shut-downs. Just recently we completed a tower demolition for Dubai Petroleum.”

From the call out, a team can be assembled, equipped and flown out to a rig, with work underway within 24 hours. The ease of mobilisation, and the fact that a total shut-down is not required (as is often the case with a scaffold solution), is a big factor when time is money.

Ian Caffery, general manager of Arabian Access Solutions says the advantages of speed onshore are magnified for jobs in the offshore environment. “With a scaffold team you need an additional ten to twelve beds, plus the added time it takes to organise the logistics of all the equipment and installation. From arrival, a rope access team can be working in around thirty minutes.”

Whilst clearly specialised work, which requires an astonishing head for heights, the standard process is not to look for abseiling experts and give them a trade. Rather, skilled tradesmen in their field are selected and given the rope access training, often in-house.

“Whether they be electricians, welders, inspectors first, we bring in our trainer from the UK who will bring them up to required standard for rope access work. Of course, we do try to enhance the skill sets once people are working for us. So if someone is a UT inspector, we would train them up to MPI. We provide all of the internal training necessary for offshore such as the H2S training and helicopter evacuation certifications,” explains Harkin.

Megarme has carried out inspection and maintenance work for most of the region’s biggest oil and gas companies. “We’ve worked for Dolphin and RasGas in Qatar, ZADCO, GASCO in the UAE and the firm is planning to open a Bahrain office in 2010, with the hope of penetrating the lucrative Saudi Arabian market. “We have found in the past it is very difficult to crack the Saudi Arabian upstream sector from a remote office. Bahrain will hopefully act as something of a gateway for us there,” says Harkin.The array of tasks which the leading rope access firms are now regularly called upon is impressive, and growing. From simple hydroblasting to strip paint before an inspection, right through to super-high pressure jetting at 40,000 psi (which can cut steel) and ultrasonic and magnetic particle inspection services, the firms have swollen their skill sets in order to capture rewarding upstream inspection contracts.

“We are evolving into a credible inspection agency in our own right. Rather than being primarily a rope access outfit, we are constantly rolling out additional services, otherwise companies in the inspection business will move into the rope access field,” observes Harkin.

Megarme is currently aiming to have a full radiographic inspection centre in Abu Dhabi, open in 2010. “Even though it represents a relatively small part of the inspection remit, if a company is tendering for a full three-year inspection contract it wants you to have it all in house – it’s simpler for the end user to have one company to deal with rather than half a dozen subcontracting firms,” he says.

Caffery concurs, adding that the specialist skills and inspection work remit is a vital part of the Arabian Access offering. He says the crucial difference is being able to provide a stable of services geared around the needs of the oil and gas industry, and that the marketplace for qualified firms is still relatively uncrowded.

“Having spent a year working at Dubai Petroleum as a project manager I was able to see lots of gaps in the market compared to the services offered in the North Sea oil industry, so bringing the skills and equipment over to plug that gap has been our remit since we launched a year ago.”

The combination of rope access and non-destructive testing capabilities has proven not only recession-resistant, but in fact, a tough climate was the ideal time to launch, Caffery explains. “As a company we were not deterred by the collapse in confidence around our launch in January 2009. We’re in a position where we can offer huge savings to the industry, so in many ways it was a good time to launch and we’ve surpassed expectations for our first year.”

Despite the dangers inherent in working at height, or in hard-to-reach areas, rope access has a strong safety record, and is fast being recognised as one of the safest methods of carrying out operations that are perceived as dangerous.

“The statistics show that rope access is one of the safest methods of carrying out work at height. In the civil engineering field this is important, but that HSE requirement is stepped up another level in the upstream world,” says Harkin.

Arabian Access Solutions is also pioneering new techniques for some of the most dangerous and unappealing jobs in the oil business – tank cleaning. It is still common in the Gulf for a team of workers to enter storage tanks and manually dig the sludge and residues out. “Obviously there is a huge HSE issue there, not to mention climbing up and down 20 metre ladders with sludge on their boots in the heat of the summer. Those are truly horrible conditions to work in. We have a modified suction pump solution which we lower into the tank, which means people don’t have to go in at all. It cuts down the number of people going in to the tank and in terms of scheduling, it slashes the time taken to get the job done.”

As oil companies and EPC contractors alike continue to keep cost control at the top of the agenda for 2010, going direct to rope access and hydro blasting and non-destructive testing certified firms could spell significant cash savings.

“Quite often, a lot of our upstream work has been subcontracted down from the EPC company, through the various layers of the construction or maintenance chain. It ends up sub-contracted to a fairly high level, but of course if companies came to us direct there are far fewer people creaming a margin off the service cost, so it could be a lot cheaper,” concludes Harkin.

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