The impact of the pandemic on the oil and gas industry is huge and we will be looking at this in a forthcoming post. Here retired oil worker Neil Rothnie looks at the health and safety issues for workers on the North Sea rigs which remain in production.
According to oil & gas workers trade union official Jake Molloy speaking to the industry trade paper, Energy Voice, tests to help safeguard North Sea oil and gas workers against the outbreak of Covid-19 are “at long last becoming available”.
It’s not clear from the article whether swab testing is already underway, but the RMT trade union seems to have talked to one company in Aberdeen that is involved in the venture. In the “deal” maritime operations employers either have or will be able soon, to mobilise workers who test as “clear” to crew their vessels without fear that anyone is being sent offshore with the virus. It doesn’t look like testing has reached other categories of oil & gas workers.
Judging by daily Government briefings on the crisis, the issue of testing is a hot potato, with health workers very unhappy that, at least up until Thursday, April 2, when this article appeared, there had been virtually no testing of health workers. Front line NHS staff don’t know whether they are infected or immune when they treat patients or when they go home to their families. Similarly, those self-isolating because family members have shown symptoms don’t know whether they can get back to the front line.
This news from the North Sea begs the question of whether oil & gas workers are more “essential” than doctors nurses and all the other categories of hospital workers and should be prioritised for testing? This is quite possibly the case. Who would presume to judge the issue? It’s easy to see the possibility that if the lights (and the ventilators) went out, even heroics from the NHS workforce would be of little avail in the face of this ongoing emergency. Is this the case? Oil & gas workers it seems are being informed by letter that they are “key” workers.
Energy Voice and Jake Molloy of RMT can only be congratulated for bringing this issue out into the open. Because what certainly wouldn’t be acceptable is if testing of one or other section of the workforce went ahead under the radar and without public scrutiny. Talking about what would seem to be a different test altogether, Mr Molloy said 7000 antibody tests have also been purchased to build up a picture of which workers have had Covid-19 and track workers’ progress, and he added that the priority for the kits “100% has to be National Health Service (NHS) workers”. Mr Molloy said: “If it’s a question of who’s getting it first, then it’s no question that the NHS is getting it first. This does sound like his union RMT will have some role in making this decision.
But there seems to be some confusion as to whether these kits are available to the industry yet or whether they still have to be purchased.
There needs to be some clarity from the Government and the industry, not least because according to the experts, and the Government, the co-operation of the whole of society is required if there is to be an outcome that doesn’t crash the NHS and lead to many avoidable deaths. So it should not be controversial to suggest that no single section of industry, however important, should be allowed to make its own arrangements as though it operated on a different planet to the one where the rest of us live and die.
The other valuable service this article has done is bring to public attention just what conditions exist in the industry and which mitigate against containing the pandemic. Jake Molloy, in the article, points out that if care is not taken, “every single installation or vessel out in the North Sea is another Diamond Princess”. This is the cruise liner where 634 (17%) of the 3711 passengers and crew were found to have contracted Covid 19 after it had been detected in a former passenger. 328 of those who tested positive showed no symptoms.
Jake Molloy thinks that Covid-19 testing kits are essential to halt any major outbreak on an offshore installation or vessel – given the nature of confined helicopter travel and cabin sharing in the North Sea.
The impossibility of social distancing en route to and onboard oil & gas installations, surely makes transmission of the virus inevitable. What policy will apply to workers returning from installations where outbreaks occur? The industry is talking about dedicated hotels in Aberdeen to isolate infected workers when they return ashore. Till they recover or die? There’s mention of taxi companies prepared to take returning workers (presumably those either ill or presenting symptoms) home anywhere in the country. To die at home? To spread the infection to families and possibly further?
At least one oil worker has died on returning from offshore where he became ill with virus-like symptoms. And now the guys are travelling to Aberdeen, having their temperature taken, packing onto choppers and ending up in HVAC (Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) accommodation modules where the air is recycled and people live cheek by jowl in shared cabins sometimes with 2 occupants sleeping in the same cabin at the same time, and everyone communally eating in the mess room. Keeping a consistent 2-meter distance on a North Sea installation is impossible while working normally. They can wash their hands till the skin comes off.
Although repeated hydrocarbon releases in recent years raise the suspicion that the North Sea is once more a disaster waiting to happen, no-one can have imagined that the disaster would be Covid 19. The media have to let go of their self-censorship, stop parroting industry PR and calling it news, and actually start investigating what’s going on and ask some pertinent questions and report clearly.
There’s been another mass cull of oil & gas workers in recent weeks. It’s the age-old response of the industry to price downturns. Maybe these guys will turn out to have been the lucky ones.