C-NLOPB Counters Critics About Evacuation Systems on Offshore Facilities

The C-NLOPB issued the following statement in response to an article entitled "Criminal Inaction" by the Hon John C. Crosbie, which recently appeared in local media. The C-NLOPB feels that the article contains inaccuracies and statements that misrepresent the significant attention that this matter has received over the past 25 years in Canada and worldwide.

The evidence does not support the contentions made in the article, especially the contention that governments, regulators and industry are indifferent to the issue of safe and effective escape, evacuation and rescue from offshore oil and gas facilities. On the contrary, this matter has always been a high priority for the C-NLOPB, and safety offshore has improved dramatically as a result of C-NLOPB activities and initiatives of other organizations and agencies.

The article states that governments and the C-NLOPB have not "ensured or caused the development of a safe and effective evacuation system". The fact is that all evacuation systems worldwide have some risk associated with their use. However, the evacuation systems available on offshore petroleum installations in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore area are equal to, or superior to, systems found elsewhere in the world. The C NLOPB has encouraged and continues to support research directed at improving the safety of all aspects of offshore operations. There has been a particular focus on escape, evacuation and rescue in research done at Memorial University’s Ocean Engineering Research Group in cooperation with the National Research Council’s Institute of Ocean Technology.

The article asks why adequate performance standards have not been established. The answer is that the issue of "performance standards" has been discussed in many academic and industry forums for many years and there is no consensus on what constitutes a useful performance standard. It is easy to state that systems must "work" in specific sea states or weather conditions, however it has proven much more difficult to define the criteria that must be applied to demonstrate function, availability, reliability, survivability and independence in these conditions. Over the past several years, Transport Canada led a joint program with Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) and the petroleum industry to explore and define performance standards. Building on this research, the C-NLOPB is working with industry and other government agencies to develop a Code of Practice as a practical tool to aid in the evaluation of the overall escape, evacuation and rescue process on petroleum installations.

The article also asks why governments and the C-NLOPB have not initiated any major development projects with the offshore industry to produce a safe primary evacuation system for offshore drilling rigs and platforms. The fact is that there have been a number of these initiatives over the years, which have resulted in significant improvements and increased knowledge in this area. The Seascape system referenced in the article is an excellent example of a positive initiative, funded extensively by governments, which shows great promise. Unfortunately, the system is not suitable for all types of offshore facilities and the lifeboat to be used with the system has not passed Transport Canada’s fire test. Other excellent innovations that have been developed in Canada are the PROD system, improved lifeboat release hooks and a lifeboat launch simulator.

It is also inaccurate to state that companies do not conduct mandatory drills and training. The offshore petroleum industry is required to conduct evacuation drills weekly and lifeboat coxswains complete a formal one-week training course every three years, which is designed for the offshore industry. Drills and training are critical parts of any safety program. Usually in marine industries, drills are held in sheltered waters, but drills have been modified to account for the fact that offshore drilling and production facilities are seldom brought to sheltered water and also to reflect the height and configuration of offshore installations. Further, in light of the increased number of incidents during lifeboat drills in the shipping and offshore petroleum industries worldwide, companies no longer load lifeboats for each drill to minimize the possibility of injury to lifeboat occupants should an incident occur. Lifeboat hooks have been known to malfunction and Transport Canada is currently conducting tests on lifeboat hooks to better define the problems. We are hopeful that once these tests are completed the improved lifeboat hook developed here in Newfoundland and Labrador will help to address these issues further.

Much progress has been made to reduce the risk associated with offshore petroleum activities, but it is not possible to eliminate the risk entirely; consequently, the focus is on prevention and research must continue. Escape, evacuation and rescue is an important piece of this puzzle but it is only one piece. Major efforts have gone into identifying hazards, assessing the risk and putting appropriate measures in place to prevent accidents and to mitigate the consequences of accidents such that the last resort of having to evacuate an installation is not needed. This includes measures like better equipment and structures, better policies and procedures, better training and a generally improved safety culture. The Royal Commission said it best:

"High standards of safety in the workplace are achieved when well-designed equipment is operated properly by well-managed and trained persons. Occupational safety is maintained by keeping these factors in a state of positive balance, in what is normally a highly dynamic situation."