When the Piper Alpha oil platform caught fire and exploded in 1988 it was – and still is – the world’s worst offshore oil disaster. The event led to many changes in regulations and legislation and generated a much greater overall focus on safety in the industry. Evidence of this has been the ever-increasing importance of the location awareness of personnel and the implementation of enhanced safety precautions. For example, muster drills are now carried out weekly to ensure, should the worst happen, everyone is prepared and has the best chance of survival.
Since the disaster, mechanisms for locating and accounting for personnel have become a fundamental part of disaster planning. However, in the offshore oil and gas industry, location awareness and mustering of personnel poses different problems to those experienced onshore, for example, in refinery sites or across larger geographical areas along transmission pipelines. The last decade has seen considerable technological developments in all of these areas, and today there are several technologies that can be used.
Advances in detectors, antenna designs and protection techniques have increased the reliability, range and performance of RFID systems and, as the option to use computers and wireless technology in hazardous areas has become possible, information from location awareness systems can now be displayed locally on GUIs. Also, developments in electronics mean that circuits can be miniaturised, making equipment more portable and less intrusive.
Figure 1 shows a simplified representation of the oil and gas industry from offshore platform to onshore distribution and storage. As well as showing the continuum for oil and HSEgas production, the sites shown are also, coincidentally, where location awareness might be required. What might be needed at each of these sites is shown in Table 1.
Considering each site type reveals the issues of scale that need to be considered. Offshore, space is at a premium and freedom of personnel movement constrained, so choke point monitoring across bridges to control POB and at mustering points may suffice. This issue is more complex where location awareness of personnel is required in relation to, say, a main transmission pipeline.
Advantages of electronic location awareness
The primary risks mitigated by location awareness are focused on removing human error and improving the speed and accuracy of information available in real-time. However, in an increasingly violent world these systems can also be used to provide enhanced security against piracy, terrorism and even kidnap.
A classic example of the former is Statoil, which in 2006, decided to improve emergency preparedness across Statfjord. Key aspects it focused on were better ways to register personnel in an evacuation and keep the Emergency Preparedness Management Team fully updated regarding evacuation status in real-time. Following evaluation of the conventional ‘paper’ based systems, it was realised that room for improvement existed and a sound business case for adopting an Electronic Personnel Registration System (PRS).
Whilst musters could be achieved in line with Norwegian legislation using conventional techniques, it was clear this could be challenging in a crisis. Statoil wanted to significantly improve on this and the behaviour of people in a crisis by removing, so far as possible, the human variable and risk of ‘human error’ from mustering. In the event of a crisis it wanted to ensure safety was not compromised through failing to properly account for personnel, so that searches for those missing could take place faster, whilst preventing the risk of unnecessarily sending rescue teams into a danger zone to find those incorrectly marked as missing through human error. An electronic PRS, not being subject to human error under stress, would ensure reliable real-time data and counts.Saving time and cost
Offshore the old adage that ‘time is money’ is particularly true, and investing in safety provides business benefits. Manual ’paper-based’ mustering techniques can be time consuming both to administer and generate post-muster reports. An electronic PRS does this automatically providing measurable benefit in this area, with a full history stored and reports automatically generated. In addition to providing clear advantages, minimising the risk of human error and reducing muster times in a crisis, it was seen that the PRS would also streamline muster drills, reducing the time required to carry out these necessary exercises by over 50 per cent and allowing personnel to get back to work more rapidly thereby reducing lost man-hours.
Following careful evaluation of all the options, Statoil selected S3 ID Limited to supply the PRS using RFID technology from its eLocator and eMuster range.Technologies used todaySwipe Cards
Swipe Cards are the most widely used location tool, requiring personnel to swipe ‘in’ and ‘out’ at Card Reader points. Many systems are available using swipe cards to create muster lists and provide access control. The main advantage of this technology is it is cheap to implement and to issue cards. However, the drawbacks of using this in safety applications are that it relies on human intervention, only one person can swipe in at a time (leading to possible delays in an emergency), and the cards can quickly become worn, dirty and unreliable.RFID
Two types of RFID tag are in common use: Passive and Active. Passive tags operate contactless but require close proximity with the reader to be read and can only be read individually. Active RFID tags are different. Containing a battery they support increased functionality such as longer life, increased range, and crucially, provide the ability to read multiple tags at once. Active RFID provides perhaps the optimum solution for offshore applications allowing tags to be read as personnel pass choke point antennas on the platform, cross bridge links or arrive at muster points.Ultra Wide Band (UWB)
Providing positional precision to half a metre, UWB currently offers the best resolution in real-time location awareness. In use, UWB appears similar to RFID with tags typically worn on a lanyard or chest-pocket. Functionally UWB operates like radar, with a network of sensors set up covering an area. UWB can overcome multi-path errors arising from reflected signals. This technology therefore also works well indoors. Another advantage of UWB is that a person’s location can be monitored in 3D. Coupling this data with appropriate visualisation software can help emergency personnel understand a situation and find a safe route in a crisis. Typical applications for UWB can be found in refineries and compressor station sites.Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
Most people are familiar with GPS, which provides positional accuracy of around one metre, calculated by triangulation using a constellation of satellites and highly accurate timing
(See Figure 2). However, GPS has limitations. It works well out of doors, but is restricted by tall buildings, dense foliage or when people are inside buildings.
GPS location awareness systems offer the advantage of tracking workers outside of pre-assigned zones. Accordingly GPS could be used to provide enhanced security of personnel on large sites or geographic areas. Consider pipeline workers in remote and troubled regions, where this option could offer peace of mind and a clear starting point for search and recovery, should the worst happen.
Electronic location awareness provides enhanced levels of safety and security for personnel by removing the human risk element (as far as possible) and improving communication, leading to an enhanced probability of surviving a disaster. Investing in such technology can also make commercial sense by controlling costs through reducing downtime and lost production resulting from drills or false alarms. It can also potentially mitigate the risk of litigation in a real incident through being seen to ‘have done the right thing’ and can enhance the ‘brand value’ of a business leading to enhanced shareholder value.
Clearly, the best time to plan how you would manage your business in crisis is when you’re not in one. This is particularly important for the oil and gas and energy industries, which are always under public scrutiny. The risk of not being prepared to execute a well-planned, integrated response can directly impact on the bottom line of a business and result in damaging consequences to the reputation of the company involved and the industry as a whole. Conversely, well-managed pro-active planning and the appropriate use of location awareness and mustering technology can secure stakeholder confidence and protect your business’s reputation.S3 ID
Dr. Charlotte Richardson is product development manager at S3 ID, a leading business that has been at the cutting edge of the personnel location world for over 12 years. The company specialises in analysing and evaluating the effectiveness of new technology to provide the best service to its clients.
For further information please visit: www.s3-id.com