Pulse

Can working on offshore platforms be injurious to health?

Richa Mishra | Updated on March 10, 2018

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An inside view on how oil majors cope with health and safety on oil rigs

When Somya Pande was assigned an off-site posting, she was the only woman in an all-male team. But that was not her family’s only concern.

In Pande’s case, off-site meant staying on an oil rig for days with just the silence of the deep sea, noise of drilling and exposure to hazardous and poisonous chemicals and gases.

But it’s not that women are exposed to a higher health risk than men, says Pande, a petroleum engineer with Reliance Industries-operated Krishna-Godavari Basin D6 block. All of 30, Pande has spent 11 years in this line, seven with RIL. Though Pande comes from a family of petroleum engineers, she admits, there are social and health-related apprehensions linked to her job.

Health factor

That’s because the oil and natural gas sector is one where the risk to health and human life is, perhaps, higher than any other.

Men and women are exposed to harmful chemicals, sea sickness, living on platforms that store crude oil (which is hazardous) and where the off-loading takes place, says Pande, giving an insight into a sector that has little visibility to the outside world.

And to keep employees safe, energy-majors including BP, Shell, ONGC, Cairn and Reliance Industries don’t just review their health and safety practices, but even redefine them as the industry evolves to attract more women and diverse talent.

India’s big daddy in the sector, 59-year-old ONGC is, for instance, working on a health and safety policy for women employees on offshore assignments.

A proposal to this effect will be shortly placed before the Board of Directors, says MC Das, Chief of Health, Safety and Environment. Since the mental health of employees on an oil rig is just as critical as physical safety, the oil major also proposes to have at least four women at a time.

Outlining exploration-related health risks that affect women and men employees alike, Das says, skin irritation could develop from exposure to chemicals or inhalation of gas. To avoid these problems, oil exploration companies use protective equipment, including hand gloves, goggles, and ear plugs.

Employee shifts are changed every fortnight to protect them from exposure to chemicals and regular health check-ups are done to protect against long-term health implications.

Drilling dangers

Explaining how they deal with toxins while undertaking drilling activities, Das says, ONGC uses water-based mud chemicals — fluids injected into the drilling process to reduce toxicity.

Research shows that water-based muds are non-toxic.

Even oil-based mud has less than one per cent aromatic content and is non-toxic, but water-based is more popular, he says.

In special cases, synthetic mud chemicals are used.

But in both water-based and synthetic drilling fluids, personal protective equipment, such as hand-gloves and masks are used to avoid accidental exposure. Recognising the hazardous nature of the job, a different aspect of preparedness is visible at Cairn India.

A one of its kind air ambulance is stationed at its Mangala Processing Terminal (MPT), Barmer, Rajasthan. The chopper is equipped with emergency life-saving medical facilities, such as a ventilator, defibrillator, medical oxygen, etc.

In the oil and gas industry risks to human life are high compared to other sectors — perhaps an inevitable consequence of the challenging environments in which they operate, says Yasmine Hilton, heading Shell India.

Slippery slope

“On an oil rig, holding a handrail can be a matter of life and death,” she observes. But thankfully, since 2010, important lessons have been learnt, she says, adding that the sector has redefined its approach to health and safety to reduce accidents affecting not only health but life itself.

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Published on February 06, 2015
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