The North Sea is one of the world’s most relentless working environments. With over 27,000 personnel currently servicing the offshore province, safety of the workforce is an accepted priority for energy companies. Following the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 and the Lord Cullen inquiry, health and safety improvements have come into force for the good of the industry. While safety is high on the agenda, the health and wellbeing of oil and gas personnel should also be at the forefront of majors’ minds. Behaviour has been recognised as having a significant influence upon the number of safety incidents. Furthermore, changes in attitudes to safety have resulted in a positive shift in the number of incidents, but the same needs to be applied to health. What other measures can the energy industry take to ensure the health and safety of its valued recruits?
Fifteen years ago, the UK offshore sector set a goal to become the safest oil and gas exploration and production region in the world. The result of this was the formation of Step Change in Safety. Through adoption of best practice, co-operation and collaboration the UK-based partnership works with individuals and organisations to find practical solutions to common safety issues. The group has experienced significant success. Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive’s 2010/2011 offshore safety investigation revealed a reduction in the number of major injuries sustained. Additionally, the number of over-three-day injuries fell steadily and followed the downward trend since 2006/2007.
Since Step Change in Safety’s creation in 1997, the industry has effectively worked towards reducing accidents offshore. However, more needs to be done to promote the ‘health’ in health and safety. Both factors are reliant and ultimately dependent on one another. Abermed recognises the absolute need for safety in the workplace, but we must not let health slip down the agenda. The old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ rings true within the oil and gas industry. A healthy, observant worker is less likely to have an accident while operating potentially dangerous machinery than someone who is fatigued and unfit. An optimally healthy workforce will undoubtedly perform more effectively, benefiting businesses and profitability in the long term.
As well as factoring the remote nature of the locations of rigs, energy companies must tackle the issues created by a varied demographic. Offshore medical staff must be adaptable and ready to respond. Medics deal with a wide variety of ailments, ranging from general aches and pains to specific occupational problems and medical emergencies. Topside services provide a virtual support network to medics unable to rely on colleagues in a conventional medical practice. Modern technology allows instant access to other health disciplines without the need for the medical practitioner or the patient to travel long distances.
Technology plays a pivotal role in competent medical diagnosis. Management of health problems offshore relies on the availability of highly trained, clinically supervised medics with access to a range of technology to facilitate meaningful communication with on call Topside doctors. These tools can be as simple as a telephone allowing an offshore medic to discuss a patient’s condition with a doctor to seek further advice. New developments that assist in the assessment and management of more complicated conditions are also being made available to medics. For example, photos and real-time video images can be sent via a secure online link, making it possible to obtain a valuable consultation with a specialist based anywhere in the world. This is invaluable when handling a wound or skin condition that is difficult to describe. A picture really is worth a thousand words.
Diversity has an impact on the measurement of health in the energy sector. The offshore industry combines an aging workforce with new, young and sometimes inexperienced recruits. A certain degree of physical fitness and mental agility is needed to face the industry head on. Passing the required medical examination before stepping on the platform is just the beginning.
Findings from Oil and Gas UK’s document ‘The Ageing Offshore Workforce – Myth or Reality?’ indicate that the chance of successfully passing an offshore medical is dependent on the age of the employee. The report reveals that workers over the age of 50 have restrictive health problems that prevent them from completing or passing the required offshore medical.
Age itself is not an issue for the industry. Certain conditions, however, such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are considered to be widespread in the older generation. As a nation, we are getting larger, the energy sector is following the national trend. On average, the weight of offshore workers has increased by approximately 20 kilograms over the last two decades. Not only are there the associated health risks when carrying extra weight, a worker’s ability to escape through a helicopter window must be considered in case of a helicopter ditching.
Risk management is intrinsic to the fitness of the sector. Oil and Gas UK issued guidance relating to OGUK Offshore Medicals, indicating that medical risk management is key to ensuring fitness for task in a safety-critical work environment.
Risk assessment is increasingly based upon more robust health data collected by all operators internationally. Subsequently, the information is collated and put into context by a comprehensive understanding of the industry. Individuals with chronic health conditions such as insulin dependent diabetes or recurring mental health disorders, who would have been excluded from work offshore a few years ago, may now be considered to complete offshore tasks.
In the future, I foresee functional capacity assessment playing an increasingly important role in ensuring an optimum fit between the job and the person. In a laboratory environment, tests mimicking the tasks required by an employee are completed to ensure competency offshore. When medical risk and functional capacity assessments are combined, there is the potential to bring any risk issues to the fore. This evidence-based approach should ensure an employee’s ability to work in a safe and healthy manner.
Unfortunately there’s no quick fix. Ensuring the healthiest possible workforce is present within the oil and gas sector is paramount. The industry has to apply some smart thinking about how they influence the desired outcome and therefore engage these workforces. How do you successfully engage those who most need to take part in programmes? The majority of chronic medical problems originate in behavioural aspects of an employee’s psyche. Influencing change at a behavioural level can take significant time. Encouraging a healthy lifestyle may have to begin at the rig’s canteen. Implementing new health initiatives are key to ensuring the wellbeing of the industry.
The time is now. We have identified that safety incidents are heavily influenced by behaviour. By targeting and changing that behaviour at a primary level, we have succeeded in implementing a widely accepted safety culture. This thinking should be applied to health. Both onshore and offshore, we should sit down as an industry and look at the evidence base for promoting health: what actually works and what does not. This is the intelligent way to get results and, with a growing evidence base, it will work. Safety has accomplished notable results by collecting and analysing statistics and identifying the root cause of incidents over time. There is a timely opportunity to learn from safety, adapt the model and improve health and wellbeing for the industry. Increased health awareness can benefit the organisation as a whole. It’s time to put the ‘health’ back into health and safety.Abermed
Dr David Cook is medical director of advisory services (Energy) and central belt at Abermed, which has over 25 years of experience in providing remote medical support services to the energy industry and occupational health services across the UK. Abermed provides a range of services to the oil and gas industry, including medical emergency response services, rig medics, repatriation and remote location support.
For further information please visit: www.abermed.com