Ever since they were put to commercial use, oil and gas have dominated the energy landscape of the world thanks to their relative ease of transportation, storage and use. Moreover, as hydraulic fracturing opens up previously inaccessible shale oil, this scenario is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
The oil and gas story does have a dark side, as the stakeholders of this industry face significant health and safety risks all along the supply chain. While environmental hazards are among the most prominent risks, the occupational hazards often go underrepresented in public discourse. Such hazards are of two kinds – injuries due to vehicular collisions, explosions, etc.; and diseases caused by chemical, physical and biological agents as well as due to ergonomic and psychosocial issues.
Isn’t it imperative to mitigate these risks for a sustainable business model? Yes it is, but before we can do that, we need to understand which aspects of the supply chain are susceptible to which of the risks. Each stage, starting from exploration and production (upstream), through transportation and aggregation (midstream) and, finally, refining and distribution (downstream) must be addressed individually in this respect.
- Upstream – The extraction stage is where workers face the gravest of risks. According to CDC's (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the fatality rate among oil and gas extraction workers, at 27.1 deaths per 100,000, was seven times that of all U.S. workers in the period 2003-10. Such workers are regularly exposed to carcinogens like heavy metals, radioactivity, pathogens, etc. Risk of injury is also high for them as they work with heavy machinery and explosive substances.
- Midstream – Workers involved in transportation are most susceptible to motor accidents and exposure to hydrocarbons.
- Downstream – The refining stage again makes workers susceptible to carcinogenic chemicals, although they are markedly different from the ones used in extraction (and hence their mitigation is also different).
After identifying the sources of risk for each business process, the next step is to mitigate them to reasonable levels. Organizations need to have a health and safety plan in place that defines preventive measures and sets up incident response systems. Regulatory compliance and emergency response plans should be weaved in with the day-to-day business processes. Finally, clear rehabilitation and compensation measures should be established for workers involved in any mishap.
At the root of many of the risks involved in this industry, is the extent of manual intervention involved. Hence, oil companies must strive for greater levels of automation so as to move their employees out of harm’s way. Some of the best practices being used today include automated monitoring systems – ‘digital oilfields’, oil and gas robotics, leakage detection and emergency shutdown systems, and refinery modernization.
Given the nature of work, the oil and gas industry has the dubious distinction of exposing its workers to some of the most dangerous environs that nature has to offer. Nevertheless, the future seems bright as oil and gas firms work towards keeping their workers and the environment safe. Don’t you think so? Do write in with your views