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Sun 6 Jul 2008 04:00 AM

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Playing it safe

Improving HSE practices in the oil and gas industry can deliver tangible commercial benefits.

Improving HSE practices in the oil and gas industry can deliver tangible commercial benefits. Oil & Gas Middle East surveys the industry for best practice.

It does not require a vivid imagination to realise that working in the oil and gas industry can be somewhat perilous at times.

The extreme environments that many of the workers face can create all sorts of issues relating to their health and safety.

The demands of the job mean that workers have to be very healthy. If you are working offshore, chartering a helicopter to fly you back for treatment represents a very expensive solution. - Dr Sarah Peters.

It is with this in mind that many of the majors and smaller firms have stepped up their risk management and health and safety programmes, employing occupational health experts to advise on these programmes and provide services to guarantee good employee health.

Two of the major occupational health experts for the oil and gas sector in the region are the Prime Health Group (PHG) and General Medical Centre (GMC), both of whom provide a comprehensive service which includes, ensuring a safe workplace, prevention of occupational diseases, treatment of diseases, promoting the health of employees, pre-employment and annual check-ups, and training of onsite paramedics.

"I have definitely seen an increase in companies reaching us for such services. It's due to more awareness and to international regulations making occupational health measures mandatory for oil and gas companies," says Dr Carole Chidiac, GMC.

The growth in the Middle East energy industry has led to increased demand for occupational health companies, something that has led to PHG using Dubai as a "launch pad for the region", according to managing director Greg Hutchinson.

The challenges in providing health care are obviously comprehensive - for instance the nature of offshore work, which possesses specific dilemmas.

"The main challenge in remote locations is the evacuation in case of accident or health problem. That's why a pre-employment medical is necessary to rule out conditions that might threaten an employee on site and for which a treatment won't be available. In best conditions, it might take many hours or even days before reaching an adequate medical facility. In some conditions, this time factor can be life threatening," says Chidiac.

"Other challenges for offshore include working at dangerous heights, weather conditions, social isolation and endemic diseases. But the main health problem in this part of the world is related to heat. Despite all safety measures taken to prevent heat strokes and dehydration, cases do happen especially during the summer. They're rarely dangerous though since paramedics on site are normally equipped to deal with such problems," added Chidiac.

Dr. Sarah Peters, clinical director and occupational health physician, PHG, seems to agree with Chidiac.

"The remote location is probably the critical factor here. The rigours and demands of the job mean that people have to be very healthy to work in that environment. An example would be someone who may be plagued with something fairly innocuous like a toothache, if they were working offshore then chartering a helicopter to fly them back for emergency treatment represents a very expensive solution," she says.There are also hazardous chemicals involved in the oil and gas industry, such as Benzene, which require monitoring and assessing to ensure the workers are not over exposed.

"Safety measures are normally enforced by the company to reduce this exposure, such as limiting time on site with breaks every few weeks, environmentally clean areas to go to in case of leakage and special masks. Respiratory function is normally checked before joining and during the job among other tests to make sure the employee is not facing health hazards related to chemical exposure," explains Chidiac.

Infectious disease can also brought onto site via workers coming from varying regions of the world. Diseases such as malaria - mainly found on African sites - and tuberculosis need to be screened, particularly if employees are going out to work on offshore sites.

The main challenge in remote locations is evacuation in case of an accident or a health problem. In some conditions, it might take hours or days before reaching an adequate medical facility. - Dr Carole Chidiac.

"The main endemic disease in this part of the world is tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is a very complicated public health issue. The disease can be active or latent - active diseases would eventually be deported but latent cases are common among workers and might become active and contagious. The risk is mild but not negligible," says Chidiac.

When the employee has been certified as fit for the job and is onsite, then the health and safety of the workers is heavily reliant on the education they and their employer have been provided.

As Dr Chidiac says, "education is definitely important at all levels, for managers, supervisors and workers - especially for the workers as this is usually lacking."

Both Hutchinson and Peters support this advice, and include it as part of the service they provide. "Telling employees to do something for health reasons and at the same time explaining the benefits are very important. It's no use telling someone to wear a mask, which they may consider uncomfortable, without explaining why they should and the reasons why, so education is a very important part of a responsible HSE programme," says Peters.

"Beyond the obvious things to look out for, we are also more involved with stress management, diabetes, and addressing lifestyle habits such as smoking than perhaps the medical industry was in decades past. This has quite tangible benefits, by taking an interest and making employee health a priority you can raise productivity and improve staff retention rates," added Hutchinson.

One of the leading pioneers of health and safety at work in the region can be found at Drydocks World, Dubai, who recently picked up the Facility Management Magazine's award for the Health and Safety Initiative category.

They have also achieved four Sword of Honour awards in a row, the British Safety Council's recognition for excellence in managing health and safety, which is presented to just 40 companies worldwide each year. A very impressive record which Tony Potter, group health and safety manager, is obviously proud of.

"We have a huge training section, so all our employees are trained the moment they step through the door. They go for induction training and then various other training that is planned throughout their career," says Potter.

"We start at a very low level leading up to professional standard courses - this could entail basic health and safety awareness training, risk assessment training, supervisory training - all to do with onsite health and safety," he adds.According to Potter, a large number of workers in Dubai and the Middle East will have come from Asia and have minimum or no experience, and will need education.

"It's a dangerous industry we work in ­- if you get hurt you can get hurt badly. We have a programme for new starters in which they don't go near a ship for three months, they're kept in the shop and have a buddy system, where the superior will make sure he is doing his job correctly and he is given a job that actually suits him, otherwise he might get killed," he adds.

Working at the dry docks has many risks, but it is the extreme heat which affects the largest number of staff according to Potter. "The environment that we work in here is very hot and sticky, and when you are using gas cutting or welding equipment, the temperatures can be extreme," he says.

There are quite tangible benefits to HSE – by taking an interest in your staff and making employee health a priority you can raise productivity and improve staff retention rates. - Greg Hutchinson.

"All our men go through a course which is for the recognition of how the heat affects them, all the way to heat stroke - recognising when you have been affected by the heat is very important part in managing the overall health and safety side of it," he adds.

Other requirements made for the drydock workers are drinking oral re-hydrate solution (ORS), wearing T-shirt insulation, brims attached to their hardhats to keep the sun off their neck, water bottles that are filled regularly and two daily pep talks explaining the conditions of the job role, how long to work and when to stop, and the symptoms to look out for.

"We have chilled areas, where we have onboard dehumidifiers and chillers in areas where staff are working. We also have on the end of every quayside a cool room, so if you are working and feeling the affects of the heat, you can go to the cool room, cool off, get a drink, change your T-shirt , and then go back to work, so it never reaches the next stage of heat exhaustion," explains Potter.

These programmes have significantly helped the number of people affected by heat exhaustion according to Potter, who has only experienced two or three workers coming in for treatment so far this year, an impressive feat.

And it is this sort of dedication that ensures the workers' safety, not only in terms of heat exposure, but all the other risks involved with working at the dry docks. Potter points out it requires a large team dedicated to health and safety to achieve this.

"We have the health and safety department, we have appointed 35 safety inspectors, 125 firemen and 52 security guards, so the overall health, safety, and security section is about 220 people. They are all recruited externally, for example to be a fireman you must have had at least two years experience as a fireman in the civil defence in your own country, a safety inspector must be at least an engineer and have several years experience, normally from Singapore, India and the Philippines, and we also have a full time doctor," says Potter.

When asked how he felt the industry and Drydocks could improve in any area relating to health and safety, Potter felt that communication was a difficulty in this region of the world, "because of the different nationalities on site, it can sometimes be like Chinese whispers - by the time you get the information down to people at the job face it may have changed slightly. So, it is making sure that the communication is correct and valid when it goes to the end-user, and still this is a challenge," explains Potter.

Drydocks World's work in health and safety for its employees is certainly exemplary, and something that other oil and gas companies, indeed other industries, in the region should wish to emulate.

"Occupational health is an area where companies, whatever their size, really can see tangible benefits by having specialists monitor employee health," Potter proudly advises.

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