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Electrical safety offshore - reducing risk without reducing outputs

Author : By Kenny Mitchell, Engineering Services Manager, Dron & Dickson

When it comes to the repair, inspection and maintenance of electrical equipment there are few environments where strict adherence to the correct processes and procedures is more crucial than on an offshore petrochemical asset.

There is of course a certain amount of risk in any hazardous area where flammable materials accumulate but the proximity of fuel, oxygen and a source of ignition, the three things needed to cause fire or explosion, is unavoidable in this compact and remote environment.
There are many instances where work is being done in an area that is very near to gas or fuel but still requires certain electrical systems to be in place in order for work to continue. In fact, there are huge amounts of electrical systems running in gas certified areas at any one time on an offshore asset.
The problem with this is that these electrical systems can function as a source of ignition. The spark caused by switching on electrical devices could serve to ignite an unplanned gas emission with devastating effects.
By removing that source of ignition, you significantly reduce the risk of fire or explosion. To achieve this routine inspection, repair and maintenance of all electrical systems is essential and potentially life saving.
Although electrical maintenance is routinely carried out on offshore assets, it can be largely restricted by the allocation of budgets.
Operators work on very specific budgets for each department and budgetary restrictions can result in the adoption of selective maintenance. On occasion electrical maintenance is de-prioritised, as Ex inspection is often not as immediate a concern as something more directly related to the oil/gas production process.
Systems which run in harder to reach areas or on high points of the asset for example would often require expensive scaffolding to maintain them and so can be given lower priority than low level lighting, instrumentation and power systems.
An additional problem is often found in the recording or upkeep of hazardous area equipment inventory, which can become inaccurate over time. Assets are upgraded or re-vamped frequently throughout their life cycle with many parts being renewed.
Various modules are built, delivered, bolted in and connected up by different vendors, working under different codes of practice, from across the globe. With all these variables to consider it isn’t hard to see how difficult keeping track of everything can become.
Deletions can also be as problematic as updates, a light fitting for example can be changed but a record may not be made.
As a result of this operators can find that they are often working from old or incomplete inventories, they simply don't know what they have on their asset. They are therefore unaware of the exact amount of kit or the systems that need to be maintained.
Lack of adequate record keeping can also result in the presence of uncertified or wrongly certified electrical equipment in areas which have been certified for gas presence, which can be extremely dangerous.
The selection of equipment for certified hazardous areas must take the area classification, the potential type of gas that may be present and the safe working surface temperature of the equipment into consideration.
Even if a piece of equipment is correctly allocated, it is essential that any parts of that equipment, whether internal or external, do not reduce the integrity of the overall equipment.
By not maintaining electrical equipment to the accepted standard operators leave themselves open to receiving an improvement notice from the Health and Safety Executive. This means that, should the item in question not be repaired in a specified time, a full shut down will be enforced.
Should the immediate findings be serious enough an immediate installation shut down could result, at a cost of millions per day. In the very worst case scenario something may go wrong and cause injury or even the of loss of life.
With all of these safety critical issues to be considered in such a hazardous working environment keeping up with the latest safety legislation is vital for service providers and operators alike. 
Legislation such as the ATEX Worker Protection (137) Directive 1999/92/EC, which places responsibility on employers to eliminate or control the risks from dangerous substances, is particularly important. This is one of the newest pieces of legislation bringing British and European standards under one umbrella.
Others include the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) which, if not adhered to, could leave an operator open to investigation by the Health Safety Executive and, if not up to standard, ultimately prosecution.
One of the most important is the IEC60079-17 Electrical apparatus for explosive gas atmospheres – Part 17: Inspection and maintenance of electrical installations in hazardous areas (other than mines). This should be an operator’s bible as far as maintaining certified hazardous area equipment is concerned.
Although the duty of care ultimately lies with the operator it is also the responsibility of those carrying out any maintenance to know the accepted standards of practice.
For the service provider the BS7671 2008 Requirement for Electrical Installations, an onshore regulation which runs through how electrical installation should be handled, is very important. Although not a legal requirement, it acts as guidance for all electrical installation work and encourages best practice within the industry. This standard applies to the design, erection and verification of electrical installations and also additions and alterations to existing installations.
Complying with legislation doesn’t just benefit the workers, preventative maintenance and repair can have a real effect on an organisations bottom line so it is in everyone’s best interest to see that things are being done correctly.
Although some operators have their own teams to handle Ex maintenance it is becoming more common that external specialised help is sought.
Operators need to know that work is being done to a certain standard which a fully accredited specialist organisation can guarantee. Dron & Dickson for example can offer IRATA approved rope access technicians to handle the higher level maintenance without the need for scaffolding which ultimately reduces cost.
Employing a specialist company to maintain hazardous area electrical equipment also provides value in terms of promoting a safety culture on the asset and supporting the operator’s duty of care through a set of internal core values.
In future there may be legislative change to standardise process and procedure on a global scale, bringing everything together and further ensuring the safety of those working on an offshore petrochemical asset.
Until then bringing in an expert allows operators to significantly reduce risk without reducing outputs. 

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