COVID-19 produces silver OHS lining for offshore oil and gas industry

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Thursday, 4 June, 2020 - 09:15
Industry news
National News

While the coronavirus pandemic has caused significant disruption to the offshore oil and gas sector, it has also resulted in better information sharing, faster delivery of outcomes and stronger collaboration with OHS representatives, according to The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA).

Like many industries, the offshore energy sector has responded to COVID-19 by adopting and applying new approaches to ensure critical business continuity and the health of its people under unprecedented and challenging circumstances.

NOPSEMA CEO Stuart Smith said the pandemic has resulted in a greater willingness for stakeholders, including industry, government, workplace representatives and regulatory bodies in Australia and overseas, to share information to deal with problems collectively, leading to faster and improved results.

“The cooperation we have had from all groups has been excellent. There’s been a greater level of collaboration than traditionally occurs across the industry and the experience we’ve had with COVID-19 in that regard has been of benefit to everyone,” Smith said.

“For example, there has been greater collaboration and interaction between industry players such as operators of offshore facilities and the union movement.

“Workforce concerns are being picked up and addressed earlier. Interaction between the operators and regulators has also been occurring more frequently, and that’s enabled issues to be dealt with quickly and flexibly as well.”

During the pandemic, NOPSEMA has leveraged strengthened relationships with offshore health and safety representatives in assessing and investigating concerns regarding changes to workplace arrangements to manage risks associated with COVID-19.

Some operators have introduced special quarantine and isolation provisions for workers before they travel offshore to reduce the risks of transmission of COVID-19, while other measures include consideration of different roster patterns that involve various periods offshore.

While NOPSEMA acknowledges that changes to roster arrangements are an important consideration in managing the risks of COVID-19, it noted that operators need to ensure that the associated impacts of fatigue and psychological hazards are taken into account, documented and involve extensive consultation involving health and safety representatives and other workforce representatives.

“It’s the responsibility of the operators of offshore facilities to operate in accordance with their safety case so the workforce, including the HSRs, have a role in seeing what’s happening and recognising compliance or non-compliance and they can bring that to our attention,” Smith said.

To highlight this emerging issue, NOPSEMA recently published a safety alert regarding COVID-19 roster changes, and the alert referenced a wellbeing framework developed by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.

Collaboration in responding to this issue has helped overcome the challenges of distance and isolation so widely experienced during the pandemic.

Following consultation, NOPSEMA responded to concerns from workers in relation to proposed roster changes.

The Authority subsequently encouraged operators to engage with worker groups and unions early in the process so all parties have clarity of the changes being proposed and additional controls being implemented to reduce fatigue and psychological risks.

Significantly extending periods offshore, particularly in such challenging times where members of the workforce are concerned about the wellbeing of family members, may pose other risks that also require careful management, according to NOPSEMA.

“Where there are lessons in other jurisdictions, we’ve sought to apply them in Australia and that’s particularly important for the oil and gas industry and for operators internationally,” said Smith.

“They want to know that whatever systems are being put in place in Australia are among the leading practices globally.

“This creates the opportunity to apply the best practices elsewhere, reducing risks for the workforce.”