Fueling Ergonomics in the Oil and Gas Industry

July 13, 2006
A company in the United Arab Emirates has recognized the importance of ergonomics as an integral component of EHS policies and practices.

The oil and gas industry has job requirements that are very labor-intensive, and if the employee is not regarded in the job design as well as the equipment and tools that are used, injuries and errors will occur.

Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (ADNOC), located in United Arab Emirates (UAE), has established a code of practice known as Occupational Health and Risk Management Ergonomic Factors, which is testament to the fact that ADNOC has recognized the importance of ergonomics as an integral component of EHS policies and practices.

ADNOC shareholders are demanding that guidelines be established to implement ergonomics in the workplace in order to bring the company in line with the top 5 percent of the world's leading oil and gas companies, and to be recognized as a world-class organization. During 2004, the first steps were taken to launch ergonomic awareness campaigns. These programs consist of two phases:

Phase 1 involves the development of an ergonomics awareness program. Ergonomic surveys are carried out at headquarter facilities, laboratories, shipping terminals and off-shore and on-shore operating sites. Ergonomic assessments of the sites are conducted and educational materials are developed and used to raise the awareness of ergonomics among employees across all the facilities.

Phase 2 of the ergonomics program will involve a far more extensive and detailed evaluation of all facilities to identify specific ergonomic exposures that may create the potential for human error and injury. Production may be impacted and a series of ergonomic solutions will be recommended for implementation to reduce or mitigate the pre-identified risk factors.

Industry Risks

The oil and gas industry is a major source of revenues for most countries located in the Middle East and other regions worldwide. Whether it is a U.S.-based refinery and storage facility, or a research and recovery operation off the Niger Delta, the oil and gas industry has many built-in environmental, health and safety risk factors.

The work is performed in restricted spaces, open fields and other outdoor environments such as off-shore rigs and platforms. There are complications of heat, noise, slippery surfaces and a myriad of manual material handling exposures of lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing and pulling tasks. There are electrical issues and fall protection challenges, as well as repetitive tasks such as valve turning, which increases the force risks to the employees.

If ergonomics is not considered during any of the phases, production is affected and employees could be injured. Worker ergonomic and safety awareness is necessary for injury prevention during all phases of drilling operations.

At ADNOC, procedures and processes include ergonomics/safety meetings, ergonomic job assessments and general and task-specific training.

Certified professional ergonomists (CPEs) scientifically identified the apparent and non-apparent risk factors that exist in the working environment through objective measurement techniques and subjective quantification. Processes were devised to train the design engineers, supervisors, medical personnel and employees to identify risks and report through the appropriate system.

It is crucial that the recommendations are implemented and the corresponding feedback is monitored (i.e. injury records) on a continuous basis to ensure positive results, such as reduced injury levels and absenteeism and increased worker morale and productivity.

Some examples of possible ergonomic solutions for the oil and gas industry include:

  • Use ergonomics in the designing of jobs and choose equipment and tools that are designed with ergonomics in mind.
  • Establish ergonomics policies and procedures throughout the corporation, no matter what the size.
  • Train workers in ergonomics for the appropriate handling and use of the special tools required during drill stem testing.
  • Ensure all workers on the location understand the risks and dangers before starting any drill stem test. They should be fully informed of and trained in appropriate safety procedures, including the use of safety equipment and breathing apparatus.
  • Utilize ergonomics for the design and layout of control rooms to eliminate human error and increase comfort, fit, user performance and functionality.
  • Ensure all signage is placed in an area that everyone can see and read clearly. Use larger fonts and consider both indirect as well as direct glare.

Why Ergonomics is Crucial

The statistics for the oil and gas industry demonstrate claims by accident types. Ergonomics injuries fit into the categories titled "Overexertion," "Other" and "Bodily Reactions." They comprise the majority of accident types.

Approximately 54 percent of the claims relate to injured workers in the 25- to 44-year-old category, with males representing more than 95 percent of the claims in this category.

Working conditions in this industry vary significantly by occupation. Roustabout and other construction and extraction occupations may involve rugged outdoor work in remote areas in all kinds of weather. For these jobs, physical strength and stamina are necessary. This work involves standing for long periods, lifting moderately heavy objects and climbing and stooping to work with tools that often are oily and dirty.

Executives generally work in office settings, as do most administrators and clerical workers. Geologists, engineers and managers may split their time between the office and the jobsites, particularly while involved in exploration work.

Only one employee in 12 works fewer than 35 hours a week, because opportunities for part-time work are rare. In fact, a higher percentage of workers work overtime in this industry than in all industries combined. The average non-supervisory worker worked 39.5 hours per week in 2002, compared with 33.9 hours for all non-supervisory workers on private non-farm payrolls.

Oil and gas well drilling and servicing can be hazardous. However, in 2002 the rate of work-related injury and illness in the oil and gas extraction industry, as a whole, was 3.4 per 100 full-time workers, somewhat lower than the 5.3 for the entire private sector. The rate for workers in the oil and gas field services segment, 4.5 per 100 full-time workers, was almost 3 times higher than that for workers in the crude petroleum and natural gas segment, which was 1.6. However, improvements in drilling technology and oil rig operations, such as remote-controlled drills, have led to fewer injuries.

Drilling rigs operate continuously. On land, drilling crews usually work 6 days for 8 hours a day and then have a few days off. In offshore operations, workers can work 14 days for 12 hours a day, and then have 14 days off. If the offshore rig is located far from the coast, drilling crew members live on ships anchored nearby or in facilities on the platform itself. Workers on offshore rigs always are evacuated in the event of a storm. Most workers in oil and gas well operations and maintenance or in natural gas processing work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Many oilfield workers are away from home for weeks or months at a time. Exploration field personnel and drilling workers frequently move from place to place as work at a particular field is completed. In contrast, well operation and maintenance workers and natural gas processing workers usually remain in the same location for extended periods.

Because of the nature of the industry, promoting ergonomics can be a challenging, but necessary, endeavor.

Occupational Risk Management

Occupational risk management (ORM) is a combination of disciplines necessary to reduce fatalities and injuries in any working environment and increase the productivity, efficiency and quality of the work output. The disciplines included in ORM are ergonomics, health, safety and environmental management.

OSHAS 18001 is driving further awareness to the ORM model and will be adopted, forcing companies on a worldwide basis to incorporate all of the disciplines contained within this model. OSHAS 18001 has been developed to be compatible with the ISO 9001 (quality) and ISO 14001 (environmental) management systems standards, in order to facilitate the integration of quality, environmental and occupational health and safety management systems by organizations.

Competition is driving companies to remain competitive on a worldwide basis. Implementing ergonomic programs as part of ORM no longer can be ignored.

With the adoption of OSHAS 18001, companies must predict the future costs to society brought through a lack of ergonomic awareness. This will be displayed by increasing medical costs. In the United States, corporations are spending over $60 billion annually for compensable injuries in every type of work environment. This can be reduced drastically by implementing an effective ergonomics program.

Design of work methodologies, tools and equipment must include specifications that enhance user capabilities and recognize the limitations humans develop as they age. If not considered, production, quality and human life will be at risk.

Investing in ergonomics will greatly enhance a corporation or public entity by building a better working environment. Most importantly, investing in ergonomics as an integral part of environmental, health and safety programs can save lives, prevent injuries, establish major cost benefits resulting in greater profits and better overall efficiencies, thereby creating an atmosphere of better business.

Cynthia L. Roth is president and CEO of Ergonomic Technologies Corp. (ETC), an ergonomics consulting and training firm based in Syosset, N.Y. She is a member of Occupational Hazards' Editorial Advisory Board. She can be reached at (516) 682-8558 or via e-mail at [email protected].

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