Before anyone can fly to an offshore facility, regardless of whether they work for the oil and gas company, the drilling contractor, or third party contractors, they have to have a current sea survival and helicopter underwater escape training (HUET) certification. And before even being permitted to do this course they have to pass an associated medical examination that checks for any problems that could compromise your health while performing sea survival skills, fire fighting drills and being dunked under water during the HUET. If you are a permanent employee of the company who you represent then the company will generally pay for your certification. If, like me, you are an independent contractor then you have to pay for it out of your own pocket.
There are a few industry-standard survival courses that can be undertaken and they increase in degrees of complexity depending on how extreme the working environment is going to be where you’ll be working. Additional safety measures are continually being added to the course as newer and more sophisticated equipment and emergency breathing systems evolve within the industry. The following is a list of the standard courses:
BOSIET – Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training.
The BOSIET course is a minimum requirement to work offshore. The two day (generally) course consists of four modules; Safety Induction, Helicopter Safety and Escape (HUET), Sea Survival and First Aid, Fire Fighting and Self Rescue. During the safety induction delegates gain an understanding and awareness of emergency response procedures on offshore installations. The BOSIET is required for cold-water areas and includes additional training in the use of survival suits and emergency breathing systems during the HUET module.
Although the HUET part of the training doesn’t sound too arduous, it’s surprising how hard it is to hold your breath when you are securely restrained in the module with a 4-point harness and turned upside down underwater. Panic tends to take over which increases the brain’s need for oxygen so the body’s natural reflex to breath becomes even stronger. Knowing how hard it is to remain calm in a simulated exercise only makes the thought of being in a real-life helicopter ditching scenario all the more terrifying. It’s always in the back of your mind when you work offshore but you just hope it never happens to you.
This YouTube video gives an excellent idea of what to expect when you do your BOSIET: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLqXlEGxXxo
TBOSIET – Tropical Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training.
The TBOSIET is almost the same as the BOSIET but it is for people who will only be working in tropical waters. This course doesn’t involve the use of cold-water survival/transit/submersion suits or the use of emergency breathing systems during the HUET component of the course.
Given the nature of the job, and the fact that all offshore workers could be working in many different environments over the 4-year validity of a training course certification, it’s wise to do the BOSIET rather than the TBOSIET because you are then covered for working in both cold and tropical water environments.
FOET – Further Offshore Emergency Training
This course is only applicable to participants who have a current BOSIET card that is still current within its four years of validation. It is designed to assist in maintaining participant’s skills that are required to respond effectively to offshore incidents and offers a practical, theory reduced opportunity to practice how to respond to a helicopter incident and all components of survival at sea including fire fighting, self-rescue and first aid. It is generally a 1-day refresher course but can only be undertaken if your previous certification hasn’t expired. If you delay in getting re-certified before the four years is up then you have to do the full BOSIET course again.
Travelling to the Rig
In well-established oil and gas fields there will be a heliport dedicated to flying workers to the offshore facilities. For exploration wells that are being drilled in unestablished fields there may just be a temporary check-in facility at the closest airport to where the rig will be drilling. Many of the people working on the rig will reside in a location other than where this heliport is located and many specialists are based in countries all around the world and make the long journey to the heliport in the days leading up to their crew-change day.
The hitches offshore are generally “even-time” and can be up to four weeks long which sees the workers on the rig for up to four weeks straight and then they fly home for four weeks. On offshore production facilities the rosters are generally a lot shorter than this but drilling rigs tend to have anywhere from two to four week rotations. The cost and convenience to fly people from the other side of the world usually see these workers working four-week hitches. The closer the workforce is to a home base then generally the shorter the hitches will be. Generally it’s wise to pack enough toiletries to last for 4 weeks…just in case!
Once everyone has “checked in” at the heliport on the day of travelling to the rig, they will have their bags either manually checked or placed through an x-ray machine. There are strict rules about what can’t be taken offshore, and especially in the cabin of the helicopter. There are total bans on weapons, alcohol and cigarette lighters and mobile phones have to be checked in with your luggage and are not allowed to be taken in the cabin of the chopper. You must always carry a current BOSIET card with you at all times and quite often you are also required to carry a passport. Different countries have different requirements for documentation so you need to check what you will need before leaving home. If you cannot produce these documents upon checking in then you will most probably not be allowed to fly offshore. This then has a knock-on effect because your back-to-back who is on the rig and due to fly home when you get there, will not be allowed to leave the rig.
Once the bags are checked in everyone is required to have a breath alcohol test and sometimes a random (and sometimes not so random!) drug test. You can also expect to have your body physically patted down and also brushed over with a metal-detecting wand. Most companies today have a “zero tolerance” policy in regards to drugs and alcohol and if you fail the tests at check-in then you will not only miss going to the rig for that hitch but will most likely never be allowed on that rig again for the duration of that drilling campaign.
With all the testing out of the way the passengers are directed into a briefing room where they will find a life jacket and set of earmuffs that are to be worn for the flight to the rig. Everyone has to watch a helicopter briefing video before every flight, including when you leave the rig to fly home. The video shows the safety equipment on board the particular aircraft you’ll be travelling on and also gives a brief recap of how to escape from the helicopter should it have to land on the water. With the briefing completed everyone is led out to the tarmac in single file and instructed to board the chopper. The only items you are allowed to carry with you in the cabin are magazines or soft-covered books. No newspapers, hardcover books or iPods (or any personal electronic devices) are allowed. Once the chopper is in flight it is extremely noisy in the cabin and it’s necessary to not only wear the earmuffs but also earplugs underneath these. Unlike in the “Deepwater Horizon” movie nobody generally talks during the flight because you can’t hear a thing above the engine and rotor noise. If you are working in cold weather environments you can expect to have to wear the following gear for the chopper flight to the rig: 3 layers of clothing, a survival/transit suit, an inflatable life-jacket, emergency breathing apparatus, ear plugs and earmuffs. It’s far from being a joy flight!
Arrival on the Rig
When the helicopter lands on the rig the incoming crew disembark and head to the heli lounge in the accommodation block, which is usually close to the helipad. The chopper keeps its engines and rotors running while the incoming bags are offloaded and the outgoing bags are loaded into the cargo hold. While this is being done the incoming crew gets a brief handover of operations from their outgoing back-to-back while they swap life jackets and earmuffs. This usually takes place in about 10 minutes and as soon as the bags are loaded the outgoing crew are lined up and marched out in single file to the waiting chopper.
The incoming crew are then briefed on the current operations on the rig by the Company Man and the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM). Anyone who is new to the rig has to do a full rig induction before they can start work. Everyone else drops their bags off in their room and either starts work if they are on day shift, or attempts to get some sleep if they are going onto night shift.
The standard of the accommodation cabins varies from rig to rig. The older rigs have many 4-man rooms with or without ensuite bathrooms, and communal shower blocks for those without ensuites. Most third-party contractors and lower rank drill crew workers will be allocated these rooms while the supervisors will usually get allocated 2-man rooms that generally have an ensuite. The OIM and the day Company Man (Wellsite Manager) are commonly the only people who have a room to themselves. The 2 and 4-man rooms are generally occupied by a mix of dayshift and nightshift workers to minimize the amount of people in the room at any one time. Once you leave your room at the start of your shift it is accepted etiquette that you take with you everything you need for your shift and not go back into your room until your shift is over. By doing this the people who are on the opposite shift and trying to sleep will not get disturbed.
The operations are 24-hour and everybody works 12-hour shifts. There are two main shift times and these are “12 to12” (midday to midnight or midnight to midday) and “6 to 6” (6am to 6pm for dayshift and 6pm to 6am for nightshift). The shifts are commonly referred to as “tours” (pronounced “towers”) and generally half an hour before each “tour” starts there is a mandatory “Pre-Tour” meeting that everyone going onto that shift must attend so they can find out what operations have been carried out during the previous 12-hour shift while they have been sleeping. A lot can happen during a 12-hour shift so it’s imperative that everyone knows what to expect when they start work. Any issues with personal safety, process safety or just the stage of current operations are discussed. As with all the meetings offshore, everyone has to sign an attendance sheet as proof of being present. There can be anywhere from 100 to 200 workers onboard the rig at any one time so these meetings can be very busy.
In addition to the pre-tour meetings there will quite often be an additional third-party meeting at about 7am and 7pm. The company man/wellsite manager holds these meetings and only the supervisors need attend. Everyone briefly explains what they will be doing for the shift and any safety concerns are raised and discussed. There can be many concurrent operations being undertaken while the drilling operations proceed and everyone has to be aware of timings and how their tasks will affect all the other operations.
There will be a daily “morning call” at around 0800hrs (depending on time zones between the rig and head office), which is a phone (and sometimes video) conference call between the rig and the drilling superintendent who is based onshore in the head office of the oil and gas company that is drilling the well. This meeting is attended by the dayshift company man/wellsite manager, the OIM, the DLC (logistics coordinator), possibly the wellsite geologist, and any other person who may need to provide specific technical information on the current operations.
Every Sunday there are mandatory weekly safety meetings that are held at 0100hrs and 1300hrs for all off-tour personnel. There may also be one at 0700hrs or 1900hrs for the personnel who work the 6 to 6 shift. These meetings are held by the rig safety and training coordinator (RSTC) and will cover “safety shares” about incidents that have been reported within the industry in recent weeks. As well as a weekly safety meeting there is also a weekly fire and abandon rig drill. These are compulsory for all non-essential personnel and the timing of them usually alternates each week so the one shift doesn’t keep getting woken up all the time. If the alarm goes off while you are sleeping then you have to get up and don full personal protective equipment (PPE) and muster out at the lifeboats on the deck. The drill usually takes up to an hour to complete.
As you can see, there are a lot of meetings to be attended when you work offshore and many of them are either before or after your 12-hour shift. Depending on how busy your back-to-back has been while you’ve been sleeping, you can also have a lengthy ‘handover” time between shifts and together with the pre-tour meeting you can find your shift stretching into 13 hours. When you are working this schedule for up to 28 days straight then you need to be able to manage personal fatigue so you don’t compromise your safety, and the safety of everyone else onboard.
In the next article I will describe the facilities that can commonly be found on most rigs, With so many people working and living in such a confined space it’s important to have a well-structured routine not only out on the deck but also in the accommodation block. Because commonsense isn’t always a given, and with so many different cultures represented, it’s necessary to also have stringent rules about how you perform day-to-day tasks that you take for granted at home. How good is the food on offshore oilrigs?? Watch out for the next article and you can read all about it!
Don’t forget to supply any feedback or questions you may have about anything in this article or the previous one. I’d love to know your thoughts and I hope you are gaining a better understanding of what it’s like to work offshore.
If you missed Part 1 of this series of articles you can find it here.
Amanda Barlow is a wellsite geologist in the offshore oil and gas industry with a field-based geology career spanning over three decades. As well as being a recreational marathoner who has run over 40 marathons in 16 different countries she is also a published author of two books: “Call of the Jungle – How a Camping-Hating City-Slicker Mum Survived an Ultra Endurance Marathon through the Amazon Jungle” and also “An Inconvenient Life – My Unconventional Career as a Wellsite Geologist”. You can connect with her through the Pink Petro community, LinkedIn: https://au.linkedin.com/in/amanda-barlow-21a08b22 or through her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AnInconvenientLife