Academic journal article Human Factors

Emergency Decision Making the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry

Academic journal article Human Factors

Emergency Decision Making the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry

Article excerpt


The offshore hydrocarbon industry currently employs about a quarter of a million workers worldwide (ILO, 1993). At present levels of activity from the oil and gas industry in U.K. waters, a workforce of approximately 29 000 people (DTI, 1996) operates on approximately 150 offshore installations. These installations range from small, mobile and jack-up drilling rigs to large, fixed-production platforms with 300 personnel aboard. The workers travel to their installations by helicopter and spend two or three weeks working 12 hours per day before returning home for a two- or three-week field break.

The manager on an oil platform or rig is called the offshore installation manager (OIM). Approximately 400 OIMs (all men) work in the U.K. sector, and to manage one installation, most of them work in a two-week "back-to-back" cycle with a second OIM. The job of an OIM requires not only daily management responsibilities for a wide range of functions but also the ability to take the role of the on-scene commander should an emergency such as a fire, explosion, or blowout arise. An OIM must react quickly to deal with any such situation, but unlike the manager of an onshore petrochemical or nuclear plant, the OIM cannot call on emergency services for immediate assistance. In the short term a crisis must be dealt with by the installation's own personnel, many of whom have undergone specialized training in fire fighting and first aid and as a lifeboat coxswain. In emergencies OIMs and their teams are expected to deal with the immediate situation and to take any actions required to ensure the safety of personnel and the integrity of the installations. Possible actions include cessation of production and drilling operations, evacuation of nonessential personnel, total abandonment of the installation, and liaison with adjacent installations, onshore management, the coast guard, and aviation.

The emergency evacuation of an offshore installation is by no means simple. The majority of installations are located more than 100 miles (161 km) from land and are subject to the extreme weather conditions of the North Sea. The preferred option of helicopter evacuation can take several hours with a large crew because most of the infield helicopters carry only small numbers of passengers and the large search-and-rescue helicopters can take several hours to reach the more remote installations. Evacuation to the sea by totally enclosed lifeboats is a secondary option, but this can be difficult and dangerous in cold seas in which a swell of 20 to 30 ft (6 to 9 m) is common. In severe winter weather the best means of survival for a crew may be to remain onboard the installation and control the problem until evacuation is possible or the situation becomes untenable.

This paper examines the management of offshore emergencies and the level of decision making required of OIMs and their emergency response teams. We do this in three parts. First, we discuss the complexity of the command and control problem presented by an offshore crisis and illustrate this with a description of the catastrophic loss of the Piper Alpha platform. Second, we present a description of the selection and training of OIMs in relation to crisis management and the experiences of a sample of OIMs who managed a real offshore emergency. Finally, we focus on current theoretical accounts of decision making by incident commanders and the application of these accounts to our research on the decision-making strategies of OIMs.

The Piper Alpha Disaster

The Piper Alpha oil- and gas-production platform was located 110 miles (177 km) northeast of Aberdeen, Scotland, in the U.K. sector of the North Sea. At approximately 10:00 p.m. on July 6, 1988, an explosion occurred in the production module of the platform, which appears to have been caused by the ignition of a cloud of gas condensate leaking from a temporary flange. The resulting fire spread rapidly and was followed by a number of smaller explosions. …

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