Fatigue management in the oil and gas industry
Thursday, August 21, 2014 by Rhonda Locke
This is the first in a series examining the impact of fatigue in a number of high performing 24-hour industries. In this first blog we discuss the history of fatigue in the oil and gas industry and the impact on individual employees.
Major industrial and environmental disasters including the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the nuclear power-plant accident at Chernobyl, and the explosion at the BP Texas City refinery have heightened public awareness of the dangers caused by fatigue. Fatigue-induced lapses in judgement and accuracy can cause significant dangers, not only to workers and machinery, but the environment and community in which they are operating. In 2013, it was reported there were 80 known deaths worldwide in the industry due to varying reasons with 47 onshore and 33 offshore.
It can be argued one of the reasons behind this alarming statistic can be traced to industry legislation. Conventional strategies to mitigate the effects of fatigue in shift-working occupational settings, particularly in the transport and mining industries, are primarily centred on regulatory and organisational approaches. These include limits to hours of duty, education, and training. The oil and gas industry has historically had dispensations however, allowing drivers to work well beyond the established safety limits followed by other industries. Oil and gas industry drivers, have had to count time spent waiting at well sites as part of their hours; the result being drivers may have continued working and driving even after having been on-duty for 20 or more hours.
Despite the industry dispensation, most oil and gas companies ensure they identify, assess and control fatigue as part of their health and safety management system. Good fatigue management programs provide solid overarching policies and procedures however, there needs to be opportunities to work with the individual to maintain good health, wellbeing and proactively increase their safety.
Fatigue and shift work
From an employee’s perspective, the oil and gas industry can be attractive. The financial benefits are substantial for a Fly-In-Fly-Out (FIFO) worker. Many companies will pay commuting costs allowing employees the freedom to live where they choose, and time off between shifts provides the opportunity to travel. When on site, it is not uncommon for individuals to work 12-hour shifts seven days a week, as shift work and long and irregular hours are a mandatory component to maintain a company’s 24-7 production. The resulting impact on shift workers is the reduced opportunity for a person to achieve regular and restful sleep, which challenges the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
The other significant threat to these workers is the possibility of causing an incident when fatigued. This is even more of an issue for professional drivers, as evidence has emerged the majority of oil and gas industry deaths occur in road accidents. Approximately one third of the oil field worker deaths in a five-year period were attributed to road accidents, according to statistics gathered by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Last year more than 45% of the total fatalities in the industry were attributed to transportation accidents by air, road and water.
Additionally, while FIFO workers are often flown to their remote site location, they often have to drive to and from the airport closest to their home destination. If this final commuting leg is at the end of a two or three week tour of long day and night shifts, they may have worked at least 60-80 hours a week, and may have accumulated a significant amount of sleep debt, increasing the risk of a drowsy driving crash.
The impact of fatigue
Studies have identified a connection between fatigue and work-related injuries. The performance impairments attributable to fatigue lead to an increased risk of errors, accidents and injuries, especially in high risk safety-critical environments. Excessively sleepy or fatigued workers are 70% more likely to be involved in industrial accidents than alert, well-rested individuals. The accommodation provided in offshore facilities can make it more difficult for workers to get quality sleep. Cabin-sharing, noise, unfamiliarity, and a general lack of privacy can impact the hours of rest and recovery between shifts. Workers can become accustomed to being fatigued and cannot self-assess objectively when they are at risk of making a safety-critical error. Without the ability to objectively measure fatigue, it is almost impossible to effectively manage the associated risks.
However, it is now possible to measure the level of drowsiness and alertness in an individual through Optalert’s real-time drowsiness detection technology. Optalert’s technology provides information and alerts to workers and management before the operator becomes drowsy, therefore preventing a dangerous situation from happening. Over time, the real-time information provided to workers helps them self-manage their behaviour so they are more alert during work. Optalert's early-warning drowsiness detection technology.