Emergency response

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Onshore and offshore, personally and professionally, the impact of coronavirus on the UK oil and gas industry has been immense. Wireline looks at the efforts across OGUK and its membership to ensure the safety of people and the security of energy supplies.

The advent of coronavirus has had a profound effect on everyone in the UK. Looking back over the past few months, it’s difficult to capture the scale of the upheaval, uncertainty and consequent changes to our society, and questions remain over what actions can be taken to combat the disease in future. However, it would appear that whatever comes next, the world is unlikely to resemble the one we knew just a few months ago.

This is equally true of the global oil and gas industry. Hit by a combination of plummeting demand and market oversupply, oil and gas prices fell dramatically and though there has been some recovery, the way out of this cycle is much different to the route out of the last price downturn just a few years ago.

In responding to this pandemic, the UK energy industry has had to demonstrate exceptional speed and co-operation. From key workers ensuring safe day-to-day operations, to armies of volunteers helping communities and distributing supplies, the collective contribution of the sector has been inspirational. Here, Wireline has collected stories from across OGUK’s membership that reflect some of those amazing contributions.


Strategic communication

As the immediate implications of the pandemic for the offshore industry became clear, OGUK worked with members, stakeholders, unions, regulators and government to co-ordinate efforts and ensure both the safety of the energy workforce and the security of energy supplies.

Much of these efforts were led by the newly established Pandemic Steering Group (PSG) which has worked to co-ordinate efforts across the industry over recent months. Sub-groups of the PSG were tasked with providing guidance for specific workstreams, such as logistics, helicopters and medical support, and have continued to meet throughout the quarter.

Crucial to these early efforts was the securing of ‘key worker’ status for those in the energy workforce. As well as guaranteeing their ability to get to work (offshore and onshore), it also provided reassurance that schools would remain open to look after the children of affected staff. This was supported by liaison with regional response groups to provide details of secure accommodation and transport options for those travelling offshore, and for those who may be displaying symptoms.

Additional business support was also secured in the form of the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF), VAT relief, and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which saw the government guarantee to provide salary contributions for staff placed on furlough. The latter has since been extended to October 2020.

SSI Energy medic in the cabin of a CHC COVID Copter.
SSI Energy medic in the cabin of a CHC COVID Copter.

Air support

One of the earliest concerns for offshore personnel was the ability to evacuate any suspected cases of the virus quickly and safely. As standard search and rescue (SAR) helicopters are not equipped to deal with a viral contagion securely, dedicated helicopter response teams were set up to pick up patients and return them to shore for medical treatment or safe isolation.

Remote medical services provider SSI Energy partnered with helicopter operator CHC to establish the so-called ‘COVID Copters’, comprising of specialist adapted helicopters staffed by SSI Energy medics. SSI already supplies medics for offshore assets – and following updates to government guidance in late April, has been operating screening centres at airports – but required new protocols for the transport of suspected cases.

Managing director Duncan Higham explained: “CHC were extremely proactive in putting in screens between the cabin and the cockpit. From our point of view we had to be very careful with our medic who would be in close proximity with suspected COVID cases, so our medical director Dr Patrick Morgan and medical manager Paul Savage wrote new standard operating procedures so that we were content our medic was as best protected as we could get them.”

Deployed from heliports in Dyce and Norwich to service the central and northern North Sea sectors respectively, medics can be mobilised in under an hour, SSI says, reaching suspected cases no more than three hours from the initial call. As of mid-May, Higham estimates that each of the crews continue to respond to a handful of cases a week.

Establishing the service has challenged and proved the company’s skills, and has drawn on much of the team’s experience in remote and hostile conditions from military and medical backgrounds.

On offshore assets themselves Higham says that SSI’s medics are responding as well, staying alert to any symptoms and helping crew screening. “They are also involved in a sort of leadership capacity in enforcing the companies’ policies of social distancing, and very much being role models to help make sure safe practices are carried out.”

Following dialogue with the offshore workforce, the PSG also identified the need for greater PPE protection for personnel travelling offshore, particularly during crew transfer. This presented a problem; conventional surgical masks and face shields are unsuitable for helicopter passengers due to the risk of foreign object debris (FOD) should rotor downdraught rip the mask from the wearer’s face. These masks can also risk interfering with other PPE equipment on board.

A solution was found via safety specialist Survitec, in the form of the Virustatic Shield antiviral snood. Worn around the neck and pulled up to cover the nose and mouth, prevents pathogenic microbial intake into the respiratory system. The fabric also incorporates an antiviral coating capable of neutralising 96% of airborne viruses and reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

Commenting at the time, Survitec energy sales manager Ross Johnston said: “We are doing all we can to support all sectors of industry in these unprecedented times through constant innovation and flexibility. By sourcing, procuring and supplying Virustatic Shield we hope to help reduce the risk for our customers and are able to better protect crews, passengers and offshore personnel.”

The snood is included at the same time as issuing crew and passenger lifejackets and immersion suits before helicopter flights, and then disposed of after use. Alongside social distancing measures offshore and testing prior to departures, it helps provide a barrier to the spread of the virus in close-quarter environments.

“The response of everyone across the group in pulling together to find solutions to what has been one of the biggest challenges of our lives has been outstanding.”

Critical workers

While many businesses were able to adapt to remote working, others maintained those operations which were essential to keeping supplies and equipment running. One notable example is Global Energy Group (GEG), a Scottish-based service provider supporting construction and maintenance across the energy sector. With thousands of personnel working on and offshore across the UK, it quickly sought to adapt new routines and safety measures at lightning speed.

While GEG closed its offices and onshore fabrication facilities across Scotland, its Port of Nigg facility – part of its Global Port Services unit – remained operational during the entire phase of lockdown as an enabler of crucial supplies. Organisational engagement manager Sarah Dunn explains: “Our Health & Safety teams worked with both staff and clients to make sure that they were able to introduce social distancing and increased hygiene measures across the entire facility delivering projects with a reduced workforce.” Health and Safety representatives also risk assessed all facilities to implement new procedures across the group.

Adds Sarah: “The response of everyone across the group in pulling together to find solutions to what has been one of the biggest challenges of our lives has been outstanding.”

Even as installations down-manned, portions of GEG’s staff were still required to carry out essential work offshore. However, the widespread reduction in personnel on board (POB) also enabled the Group’s brownfield EPC business – Global E&C – to offer a new campaign-led approach to execution. Dubbed PACE (Planned, Assurance, Consistent, Execution), Global E&C’s deputy managing director, Terry Allan explains: “This model is related to brownfield modification scopes which sees Global E&C move away from the traditional method of carrying high volumes of POB on a continuous basis to lead a more focused, relevant and flexible campaign model.”

The aims is that Global E&C’s PACE model, in which teams are dispatched to tackle specific work scopes for shorter periods of time offshore, will unlock efficiency and remove unnecessary wastage from offshore activities – while also reducing disease transmission risks for staff. With adoption now, the hope is that its effects could enact new ways of working far beyond the immediate pandemic.

“In order to really move the needle, as a supply-chain, we need to accept that the legacy number of beds on offshore installation don’t need to be filled, in fact the opposite is true. There is a responsibility on companies like Global E&C to work smarter and think differently during our offshore execution activities,” adds Terry.

Hospital staff take delivery of supplies of INEOS hand sanitiser
NHS staff take delivery of INEOS hand sanitiser at Warrington hospital.

Supplying the front lines

Back onshore, many OGUK members were able to use their supplies and capabilities to assist national efforts, as well as those in their local communities. Equipment and supplies quickly became an area of focus, particularly personal protective equipment (PPE) to assist healthcare and NHS workers.

Petrochemicals and E&P group INEOS was one of the first to spring into action, announcing in late March that it would produce one million bottles of hand sanitiser per month from a new plant at Newton Aycliffe, near Middlesbrough. Supplies were provided free to NHS sites across the UK.

Expanding its efforts globally, by April the company had set up further plants at Etain in France and Herne in Germany, quickly followed by US sites at Jacksonville in Arkansas and Neville Island in Pennsylvania.

Commenting at the time, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, founder and chairman of INEOS noted that: “INEOS is a company with enormous resources and manufacturing skills. If we can find other ways to help in the Coronavirus battle, we are absolutely committed to playing our part.”

Another OGUK member, marine services group TSG Marine, started its own initiative to make sure PPE got to those who needed it most. The idea came directly from one of its staff: “On one of our regular virtual team calls one of our team members highlighted that our stores still had boxes of PPE left over from previous campaigns which we didn’t currently need, and as a team we decided to reach out to the wider community and see if the items we had would help protect key workers,” TSG Marine managing director Erika Leadbeater told Wireline.

TSG Marine supplies PPE to NHS.
TSG Marine offered PPE supplies to NHS sites in Aberdeenshire as part of its Pass the PPE campaign.

The company successfully distributed more than 30 boxes of items including chemical protection suits, paper coveralls, overshoes and contact safety gloves to the NHS and local charities. “It’s a small gesture, but anything people can do to help protect the frontline key workers during this crisis is helping protect our vital services,” she added.

The success spurred the group to start the “Pass the PPE” campaign, prompting donations to key worker groups from across the sector including companies such as Petrofac, Bilfinger Salamis UK, Wood and Well-Safe Solutions. Leadbeater noted that the success of the campaign has been encouraging for the whole organisation: “The team at TSG Marine have been delighted to be able to do something proactive to support those putting themselves on the front line in the fight against this pandemic. It’s not in our nature to sit back and watch, we’re all about finding solutions to problems.”

In the meantime, it says it continues to work in line with strict social distancing and safety measures to keep vital marine services going.

Even those without PPE directly to hand were able to help. Christopher Toothill, a senior software engineer at RelyOn Nutec, was one of the thousands who joined a nationwide campaign to use 3D printers to produce protective equipment from their homes and offices. As Christopher told Wireline: “I came to participate as I had a printer that was idle and my girlfriend is an ITU nurse. The prospect of her and her colleagues not having enough PPE was a worry for everyone, so I thought: ‘What could I do?’. I had heard about a volunteer group who had set up in the UK so I joined to see how I could help. I knew how quick 3D printing was, so it’s a great solution to rapidly provide products.”

The campaign, organised via 3dcrowd.org.uk, has sought to raise over £250,000 in crowdfunding and volunteer makers to supply face shields for NHS Trusts across the country. Christopher says he has personally made around 200 face visors over six weeks of lockdown, contributing to the 10,000 made in the Aberdeen area and 3D Crowd’s 150,000 nationwide. These were delivered locally to hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and care homes, from Stonehaven to Elgin.

For its part, RelyOn was able to pay for Christopher’s raw material costs, meaning more funding remains available for others to produce supplies via the centralised funding pot. Working remotely has also allowed him to manage the production process: He adds: “As I have been working at home I can easily monitor the printing as I work as normal. As a business we provide e-learning and software services so not only has the 3d printing kept me busy but the demand for digital products has increased as well.”

He also printed a separate supply for RelyOn Nutec’s training centre to ensure its staff and trainees are safe during their practical training. “It’s been a challenge but has presented opportunities to volunteer and use valuable time wisely,” he continues.

In addition to offering support through its personnel (see below), services group Sodexo was also influential in providing supplies. As businesses shut down regular operations in mid-March, so too did many of the group’s restaurants, resulting in overstock of foodstuffs. Restaurants across the UK were able to donate large amounts of spare supplies to foodbanks, vulnerable families and the elderly in the local communities.

The CFINE Fareshare foodbank in Aberdeen received fresh milk, fruit and vegetables, orange juice and other perishable items from the One Subsea site in Portlethen, as well as cheese, greek yoghurt, pineapple, carrots, fruit juice and bread from Chrysaor’s Oscars restaurant.

“It makes it worthwhile getting recognised at that level for going out and putting yourself at that little bit extra risk.”

Army of volunteers

As well as an unprecedented effort by frontline workers in the NHS and healthcare, responding to the virus also required an extraordinary commitment by the UK’s police forces. Alongside regular staff, forces across the UK drafted in help from an army of Special Constables – a part-time, volunteer body consisting of voluntary officers with identical powers to that of police officers – to help secure public safety. Special constables usually work alongside police officers in their spare time, but many have upped their commitments to assist local forces during the pandemic.

In north east Scotland, a raft of offshore workers were among the regular Specials volunteers, including Kevin Bruce of Fraserburgh. Offshore he leads a crew of 14 Sodexo staff, catering for as many as 195 people on board on the Clyde platform, but following a request from Police Scotland, he temporarily swapped his chef’s whites for a Police vest to work extra shifts on the beat.

Kevin first began his Special Constable career 11 years ago, and has considered signing up full time, but his 3/3 offshore rota gives him flexibility to pursue both roles. “It’s about giving back to your local community. Policing is also totally different to my job – [offshore] we’re cooped up in a galley all day, this is totally different. You get to see the world from a different side of the road – and I enjoy the job, no two days are the same,” he told Wireline.

Special Constable Kevin Bruce on duty in Fraserburgh
Special Constable and Catering Manager Kevin Bruce on duty in Fraserburgh.

He also praised Sodexo for assisting that flexibility and for their support during the pandemic. “They were very supportive and released me from going offshore for a trip, and to get that opportunity was very much appreciated from myself and from the local police. It’s helped crew extra cars and put other foot patrols out, so it has been really appreciated.”

Kevin’s beat has mainly involved community foot patrols in Fraserburgh, and he says that the response from the public has been great to see. “99% of people have been extremely supportive and the positive feedback we’ve been getting from the public when we are out on patrol is really encouraging. When you’re out and about people are coming up – obviously keeping their social distance – and thanking us. It makes it worthwhile getting recognised at that level for going out and putting yourself at that little bit extra risk.”

While some medics journeyed offshore to treat emergencies, others made the journey back onshore to assist the NHS. Philip Rice, a rig medic on the Transocean ‘Paul B Loyd Jnr’ vessel, was previously a combat medic in the British Army and latterly a nurse anaesthetist in Manchester.

As with other frontline services, the government appealed for qualified staff to come back to assist the NHS and Philip was drawn to help. “Before long I was hearing from old friends that they were short staffed and struggling,” he says. “My team at Salford Royal Hospital were the team that managed the aftermath of the [Manchester Arena] bombing in 2017. They are brilliant, they can handle anything, and I trust them. So when they ask for help, you know they really need it, and I couldn’t ignore that.”

Philip asked Transocean to support him in taking a sabbatical, which it was happy to grant. He began with a period of mentoring on the Trauma Team to re-familiarise, before moving to the front line working in a COVID-ICU ward.

Speaking ahead of his reintroduction to the ward in April, Philip noted: “I’m apprehensive, of course but I’ll take a healthy dose of chronic unease and procedural discipline with me – and I’ll be back before I know it and hopefully I can make a small difference to a few people. A big thank you to everyone at Transocean for helping me to do this, and for all your support.”


Human resources

In addition to practical support for those grappling with the virus directly, it’s important to remember that everyone may be in need of additional help or guidance during such difficult times, both personally and professionally. In a recent white paper responding to the pandemic, Mark Walker of behavioural change and process safety consultancy DEKRA notes that leadership is especially important during times of stress, particularly in fostering trust within teams.

As organisations and teams may be separated and/or working remotely, good leadership in these situations requires communication and attentiveness to potential stress factors to help support team members. Walker adds: “Leaders who foster strong connections with employees and practice active listening are in a better position to learn how their team is being affected and therefore have an opportunity to counter the stress with flexible solutions, good will, care and compassion.” Leaders should therefore look to three principles to help guide leadership responses: awareness, care and self-reflection.

While physical health may be seen as the overarching priority, DEKRA also notes the importance of helping employees maintain mental fitness, whether though self-assessment checks or encouraging stress management techniques like mindfulness.

For other staff, the downtime of lockdown could be an opportunity to consolidate skills and learning. Training provider MINTRA Group has made a suite of its oil and gas e-learning courses available for free to workers who have been made redundant or furloughed.

Available via Training Portal, the material includes 10 hours of online learning for energy sector workers, and 90 days free access to 15 of its most popular health, safety and environmental compliance courses used regularly by energy sector employers. Users can register and access courses at trainingportal.com/skilledworkers.

GE Group staff undergoing temperature testing for COVID-19
GE Group staff undergo temperature testing as they return to work.

Looking to the future

At the time of writing in early June, much of the UK is moving cautiously towards reopening many shuttered businesses and services. Although the threat of the virus remains, some public buildings, schools and businesses have established new routines such as one-way systems or social distancing measures to allow staff and clients to return.

In the case of companies like GEG that has included an e-learning module for all staff -which now forms part of new mandatory safety procedures – as well as a Return to Work pack containing a range of items to support the preventative measures. These bags, combined with both daily self-declaration forms and temperature checks, are among the adaptations GEG and others have initiated into working practices.

For much of the energy sector, the focus for the foreseeable future will now turn to safety and sustainability. While the past few months have seen many projects and work scopes shelved, some have accelerated – not least the roll out and adoption of new ways of working and collaborating remotely. With many now seeing the benefits of these technologies, business may feel empowered to stick with the changes, or become even greater adopters.

It has also seen business and their staff engage with their communities in ways they may never have considered before, both locally and nationally. Whether that has been seen in donations, volunteering time, or simply providing greater flexibility with regards to caring for children or family, the hope is that this too might continue.

Certainly, plenty of hard work and hard decision lie ahead. However, as the outlook stabilises, all should strive to ensure that the industry that emerges from lockdown has learnt from this period and stands more ready than ever to embrace new technologies, new strategies for transition and a brighter future.

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