Platform for safety

Health and safety –
The work TAQA does is exciting, important and always evolving. But it can also be high-risk and recent incidents in the North Sea brought the importance of safety into sharp focus.

It started off as just another day on TAQA’s Cormorant Alpha platform in the North Sea on January 15. But by the time it was over, the company’s stringent safety culture had clicked into overdrive after a leak was detected during routine inspection and maintenance work.

As the problem emerged, a safety crew worked on the hydrocarbon leak in a concrete platform leg, eliminating the risk to the surrounding environment. Nonessential workers were then taken off the platform as an extra precaution.

"We quickly stopped it," recalls Leo Koot, the former managing director of the UK operation and now head of TAQA’s oil operation in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. “We pumped water down the top of the pipe, pushing the oil [away from the leak]."

Two months later, a second leak was spotted in the same platform leg in another round of exhaustive checks. Again, the problem was quickly addressed as TAQA’s safety culture kicked in.

“The way the business handled the recent issues on Cormorant Alpha earned it a great deal of respect across the industry,” says Pete Jones, the new Managing Director of the UK operation. “It was extremely open, honest and professional. Within the industry and beyond, it was recognized that this is the way we need to work and communicate.”

Around £300 million has been invested by TAQA on upgrades and maintenance across the four North Sea platforms since their acquisition in 2008. “We are committed to investing in our infrastructure to extend its original design life and support long-term security of the UK energy supply,” says Mr Koot.

Strict procedures

Yet the episodes on Cormorant Alpha highlight just how critical strict procedures are to ensure the protection of staff and the waters surrounding offshore platforms. “A safe workplace and protected environment is our first and universal responsibility,” says Alastair MacLean, HSSEQ Manager at TAQA’s UK Oil & Gas business.

Robert Paterson, at industry body Oil & Gas UK, identifies the integrity and life extension of ageing installations as the biggest challenge facing the industry right now.

“We want to make sure we don’t leave ourselves open to a major accident, and not just hydrocarbons. We want to ensure installations continue to be able to withstand the harsh conditions and the battering of the sea for the foreseeable future,” says Mr Paterson, a health, safety and employment issues director.

Maintaining mature infrastructure is one element of TAQA’s broader safety culture at the company’s UK operations. “Intelligent safety means we always stop to think about our surroundings and take immediate corrective action if we feel something is not right,” says Mr MacLean. “Intelligent safety is also being embedded across three areas: people, process and plant.”

Our long-term approach has been paying off during the past few years. At the end of 2012, TAQA’s injury rate (total recordable frequency rate or TRCF) in the UK was 0.46 per 200,000 man hours, a considerable improvement on the 2011 TRCF of 0.67.

Industry improvements

Other statistics show that “hydrocarbon releases” are down across the offshore oil and gas industry, amid growing public attention on the sector in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Oil & Gas UK reported a 48% reduction in the number of reportable “hydrocarbon releases” in 2013. This was just short of its target set in 2010 to halve the number of releases over a three-year period. Hydrocarbon releases are viewed as possible precursors to major accidents if ignited.

“The non-fatal accident statistics continue to move in the right direction,” says Mr Paterson. “We still compare very favourably with other industries, but we’re never satisfied or complacent about these things.”

He puts the improvement down to “general awareness, continued vigilance and good offshore cultures, which enable people to talk about safety issues, share information and allow workers to raise concerns with their managers”.

For TAQA, a culture of safety is reinforced through specific training initiatives. More than 1,000 workers have taken part in “intelligent safety” town hall sessions, while “safety coaches” have been created in onshore and offshore teams.

“Intelligent safety coaches are the driving force for our positive safety culture. They understand intelligent safety is TAQA’s positive safety culture and they are passionate about sharing [those] messages,” Mr MacLean says.

A safer future

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the world’s worst offshore oil tragedy, the Piper Alpha accident in the North Sea, killed 167 people. While safety management has improved across the industry, the need for vigilance and strict compliance remains as strong today, says Mr Paterson.

“This is a major hazard industry and all of the hazards that existed at the time of Piper Alpha are still there,” he adds. “By having multiple barriers in place, a trained and competent workforce, and high levels of workforce engagement, we are running a much safer industry than it was at the time of Piper Alpha.”

The efficient way in which TAQA tackled the leaks on the Cormorant Alpha platform is testament to this.