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Shell talks about cutting offshore incidents to zero

Houston Chronicle

A serious adult swim

Realistic training prepares workers for the worst as energy companies raise their safety standards


Feb. 19, 2010, 11:55PM

It’s easy to be brave in the classroom. It’s harder when you’re submerged 10 feet underwater, strapped to a seat in an enclosed simulator, flipped upside down and told to escape.

Panic is inevitable. But then, the hours of training come back.

Wait till the cabin is filled with water and the violent motion stops. Lean hard on your forearm to push out the window. Grab a fixed reference point. Undo the seat harness and swim out through the opening.

Then do it again. And again. Until nearly every scenario has been tested, and enough water has been thrust up your nose to make your eyes feel like they’re floating.

It may sound like an extreme way to learn. But most companies that operate in the Gulf of Mexico require offshore workers to go through HUET, or Helicopter Underwater Egress Training.

Demand for the training has risen as oil and gas companies have placed greater emphasis on worker safety in the wake of high-profile accidents in the offshore industry.

The push into deeper-water oil and gas regions, sometimes more than 200 miles from shore, has made the industry rely more on helicopters for transport to rigs and platforms.

That not only means more classroom and hands-on training for full-time offshore workers. Today, some oil companies are requiring even one-time visitors to offshore facilities to undergo training like the eight-hour HUET course.

“Risk Awareness has gone up; risk tolerance has gone down,” said Jon Unwin, vice president of safety, environment and sustainable development for Shell Upstream Americas’ deep-water unit.

It’s part of a shift in offshore industry safety culture, said John Sanclemente, a senior drilling superintendent at Chevron Corp.’s deep-water Gulf of Mexico unit.

Today, Shell, Chevron and others talk about cutting offshore incidents to zero. But while the industry’s safety record has improved dramatically in recent decades, accidents still happen and underscore the inherent dangers of the business.

In January 2009, a helicopter crash offshore near New Orleans killed eight workers en route to Shell oil fields. Months later, a helicopter went down in the North Sea as it returned from a BP platform, killing 16.

But the accident that shook the industry the most came in 1988 with the explosion of Occidental Petroleum’s Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea, which killed 167 workers.

“It’s changed the way we do our business fundamentally in a lot of areas,” Sanclemente said.

More than 30,000 people work in the offshore oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. They include operators, welders, pipe layers, divers, support ship operators and helicopter pilots.

More than 1 million helicopter flights per year are required to get them where they need to be, and accidents are rare. Even so, most offshore workers are required by their companies to take a HUET course every three to four years.

“Because of the costs offshore and the risks offshore, both go hand in hand, and the more you can reduce those by having people that are knowledgeable and prepared to reduce those risks, the better off everybody is,” said Tom Standley, director of field service training at FMC Technologies, a Houston company that supplies equipment and services to the offshore oil and gas industry.

Early on a recent morning, about a dozen workers reported for HUET training to a small, nondescript building in Brookshire, owned by a Louisiana company called Occupational Safety Training.

Most were men, ranging widely in age and company affiliation. Most carried gym bags with swimming suits and towels inside. Few were excited to be there.

“I’m not really comfortable, but I have to deal with it,” said Thomas Allotey, 34, an engineer with FMC Technologies, who was taking the course for the first time.

Over the next four hours, the participants heard about the many ways they could die offshore, including but not limited to helicopter crashes.

“We’re going to teach you all kinds of ways to survive,” promised instructor Garrett Hindt, a tall former college football player with tattoos peeking out of his polo shirt and Bad Moon Rising as his cell phone ring.

“If you enter the water, there will be a ton of elements that try to kill you,” he said. “Mother Nature ain’t nice, and marine life ain’t nice either.” But he reassured everyone they could improve their chances by remembering some basic water survival tips.

It was all a warm-up to the main event of being dunked repeatedly in a swimming pool in a helicopter simulator known as Ms. Edith (which instructors jokingly said, stood for “Everybody dies in this helicopter.”)

One member of the class was vomiting before he ever got to the pool. He didn’t make it the full day. Even some veterans of the program admitted to a tinge of panic about the simulator.

“Being dunked underwater and being strapped in, it gets everybody a little bit,” said Jason Wilson, 37, a subsea engineer with Frontier Drilling, who was taking the class for the second time.

But if Wilson ever finds himself needing to escape from a helicopter as it sinks to the sea floor, he might have a fighting chance.

As Hindt put it: “You don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t know what to do.”


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