Occupational Health & Safety

This photograph shows signage indicating the area may have hydrogen sulfide hazards.

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Oil and Gas Drilling Rig Hazards

With rigs in use in many non-traditional areas, emergency responders and company health and safety professionals must work together.

If you have been reading the headlines of late, you will notice an increase in the reports of accidents involving oil and gas rig drilling operations. You also may have noticed these incidents are not occurring in the traditional oil and gas fields of America.

If you live in the Northeast, you may notice a scramble to your area to drill into a gas field that has been hailed as several patches large enough to supply the national demand for many years. This gas field has been in a geological zone too expensive to drill for in the past because of its true depth and the fragile nature of the geological formation in which it rests. With the price of a cubic foot of natural gas up and demand for the product up, as well, it has become feasible for exploration companies to tap into gas reserves in areas that are not considered traditional exploration areas. Geologists have estimated a single gas field in northern Pennsylvania/southwestern New York contains at least 168 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in place. Further research in the area has caused other geologists to suggest the reservoir could deliver up to 516 trillion cubic feet. By comparison, the yearly consumption of natural gas worldwide is slightly above 100 trillion cubic feet. The United States currently produces roughly 30 trillion cubic feet of gas a year. One cubic foot of natural gas can yield up to 1,028 British Thermal Units (BTUs), and the average wholesale cost in April 2008 was $10 per 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

With demand for natural gas on the rise and profits from its exploration high, you can bet the Northeast will not be the last non-traditional drilling area that will be explored by companies. Currently, it is estimated by oil and gas experts that over 400 drillers have been contracted to explore the Northeast's reserves.

The Problem for Emergency Responders
Recently, the authors of this article spent several days in the upstate New York area as independent consultants investigating an oil rig fire and meeting with local responders to get their statements on what actions they took during the incident. We found several fire departments and other emergency response agencies responded to the call. Most felt they were completely unprepared for such an event and had little idea of the magnitude of the health and safety hazards at the location. The emergency responders' desire to determine whether they could have done more or even responded properly brought about our decision to write this article for the good of the emergency response community and the health and safety professionals interacting with these organizations. The fire burned for nearly 12 hours, destroyed a multimillion-dollar rig, and destroyed the bore-hole, causing the need to spend thousands in additional funds to work the hole over and get the well into operation.

It is clear a knowledge gap exists, and collaborative efforts between the emergency response community and exploration companies can provide higher levels of safety for communities, responders, and exploration company employees. This is a real problem for small to medium-sized response organizations, such as fire departments, emergency medical services, police, and emergency management agencies that provide emergency services in the remote areas that usually are selected for exploration activities.

Response groups in traditional oil and gas fields are accustomed to dealing with double, triple, and even larger drilling rigs and the hazards associated with this industry. Many responders in traditional oil and gas exploration areas of the United States may even have worked in the oilfields before becoming emergency responders. Likewise, health and safety professionals in traditional drilling areas are more accustomed to working with local responders to ensure they are aware of the hazards associated with drilling locations and what resources the energy exploration companies have to assist in times of emergency.

The questions that were asked of the authors during the interviews ranged from "Can you teach a fire training course for us that will allow our members to extinguish rig fires?" to "What chemicals were our crew members exposed to?"

Very few drilling rig fires can be put out by spraying water and foam at them. These are necessary for cooling operations, but one must get drilling fluid (mud) down hole to complete the extinguishing process if the driller cannot get the blowout preventer to operate. Most traditional fire departments, for example, are accustomed to the basic home fire, where it is very appropriate to spray the "wet stuff" onto the "red stuff" and the fire goes out.

Rig Life, the OSH Professional, and Emergency Responders
Blowout preventer, rat hole, rotary, etc. What is this foreign language that is being spoken? The oil and gas industry has terms for every part of its rigs, and the employees who work the rigs have taken these terms over the years and made them their own.

It is important for responders to know whom to speak to on the rig and that person's responsibilities. The energy exploration company's health and safety professional has a responsibility to the emergency responders in the area of the company's operations to make them informed of the points of contact at rig locations and to make the responders more informed about the employee positions and the working parts of drilling operations. More importantly, the health and safety professional has the obligation to raise situation awareness levels of emergency responders and allow the responders to develop a sense of respect for the true hazards present during drilling operations.

Let's take a rundown of the drilling gang: The lead man on the site is the company man. This is the person who represents the exploration company and generally is always on site. Exploration companies often set up a mobile trailer on site for their company men to inhabit. To allow the reader to get a feel for the flow of the organizational structure, this employee is like a site or plant manager for general industry or a division chief for the emergency response industry. He/she is an upper-level management person for the energy exploration company who reports directly to the senior company executives on the status of the operation.

The exploration company and the drilling rig company are generally not from the same overall organization. The primary supervisor for the drilling rig company is commonly referred to as the toolpusher. The toolpusher is in charge of the entire site as it relates to actual drilling operations. Most of these men/women have been in the business for some time and, generally speaking, have the respect of their crew. This position is similar to a department supervisor for general industry or a battalion chief in the fire service.

The next person in line is the driller. He/she works for the drilling rid company. The driller runs the crew and physically operates the rig. If this guy sounds like a fire or rescue captain or a general industry foreman to you, then you're right on track. He/she is assisted by several key people commonly called roughnecks--but just as in emergency response or general industry, they have specialized functions, such as a derrickman, who handles work on the tower-like structure that stands over the rig. This group ranges all the way down to the rookie roughneck.

Any communication an emergency responder wishes to have on site needs to be taken through the drilling location's chain of command. If a rig has been set up in an emergency response organization's district, the energy exploration company's health and safety professional will need to make contact with the response organization and introduce not only the main drilling crew, but also the relief drilling crew to the organization. Generally speaking, the drilling crews work two-week tours of duty. Each drilling crew consists of a day shift and a night shift. On average, they work seven 12-hour days per week.

It is very important for the exploration company's health and safety professional to take the initiative to contact local emergency responders. Many of these emergency response organizations are staffed by volunteers. They may not even be aware a drilling location has been established in their response area.

The Main Parts of the Drilling Rig
To keep it simple, there are a few structures the health and safety professional will want to let the emergency response organizations know about. These structures can be broken down into the pit, pipe racks, doghouse, cellar, rig floor, and the derrick.

The pit is a cut in the earth that is lined with heavy plastic. This pit is used for excess drilling water, cuttings, or fluid to be collected after it has been cycled up from the bore hole. The pipe racks are the ground-level structures that store the drill string (or drilling pipe). The string is pulled up through the pipe gate by the draw works as needed. The doghouse is the building situated near the rig that contains many of the charting devices and field lab testing areas for the rig. The toolpusher is often found in the doghouse along with the driller while he is waiting for the next Kelly or section of drilling string to be rotated into the earth. The "derrick is a large load-bearing structure, usually of bolted construction. In drilling, the standard derrick has four legs standing at the corners of the substructure and reaching to the crown block. The substructure is an assembly of heavy beams used to elevate the derrick and provide space to install blowout preventers, casing heads, and so forth." (www.osha.gov).

Hazards to Stress to Emergency Responders
This photograph shows signage indicating the area may have hydrogen sulfide hazards.If the emergency responders have never been around a drilling operation, they may lack situational awareness of the true hazards to which they are being exposed. Many responders feel the biggest hazard they face on drilling locations is fire. Although this is a real hazard, you cannot overlook the fact the underground formations also contain hydrogen sulfide hazards and overpressurization hazards. The site has open pits that contain water and drilling fluid (called mud) that, if not noticed, can be a place where the unaware emergency responder may fall in and be unable to get out of because of the slick linings and the weight of his PPE, once it becomes soaked with drilling fluid or oily water.

The rig itself presents hazards from its moving parts, trip hazards, and fall from height hazards, etc. Many drilling rigs have been modified from their original design to allow for quicker set-up time and the ability to make Kellies faster. These modifications often come in the form of removing handrails and chains that protect drilling rig workers from fall hazards. The health and safety professional should make regular site audits of the location to ensure the rig is not modified in a manner that exposes employees and emergency responders to undue hazards. It is important that safety be stressed to emergency response organizations and that site safety awareness training be offered at no charge to emergency response organizations that have the potential to respond to an energy exploration company's drilling location.

How Fire Departments and Other Response Organizations Can Protect Themselves
Emergency response organizations can help make their communities safer by becoming proactive and being aware of the arrival of an oil or gas drilling rig in their districts. Seek out the energy exploration company and ask for its health and safety professionals' contact information.

An oil and gas emegency planner takes air samples at the test valve to determine whether hydrogen sulfide is present during drilling operations.The oil and gas exploration company has an obligation to establish a contingency plan and an emergency action plan for the area of operational impact. Part of this process is to contact emergency services to inform them of their operation and the hazards of their operation and to determine how they can contact the fire department, emergency medical services, and the police department in the event of an emergency. Along with the exploration company's contingency planning process, it also is required to contact the people who live nearby who could be affected if a release of natural gas or poisonous hydrogen sulfide were to occur. These plans must be made in writing and maintained on site of the drilling operations. In the photo at left, an oil and gas emergency planner takes air samples at the test valve to determine whether H2S is present during drilling operations.

When the exploration company health and safety professional contacts an emergency response department for emergency information, the response organization should request a meeting with the health and safety professional, the location's company man, and the toolpusher. If possible, the emergency response organization should request a site tour and arrange for a date when the organization can take its first due response apparatus and personnel to the drilling site for a tour. The response organization should request that the health and safety professional review the specific hazards of the location with responders, and the responders should preplan the site, just as they would with any other high-hazard structure in their response district. Some items emergency response groups can look for are which side the derrick is hinged on. Under fire or high-wind conditions, the derrick has a tendency to collapse toward the hinge side, which is usually the same side as the doghouse. Responders would not want to position their apparatus in the collapse zone of the hinged side of the derrick.

What Happens When the Well Goes Wild?
From time to time, a well may get a kick in it (overpressure of either gas or hydrogen sulfide) in the bore. If not controlled, this can blow the rig apart and may leave a burning heap of twisted metal.

Most drilling companies have employees who have received training to control a kick in the bore by renowned companies. In some states, it is required that at least one certified well control employee be on location at all times. It is not always possible for the drilling company's employees to resolve the kick, and in that case, nearly all drilling companies have an emergency response contract with a well control outfit as a contingency. It takes time for the contract well control emergency response team to arrive. Local emergency response organizations, rig hands, and exploration company health and safety professionals must be able to fill the resource gap until the well kill group arrives.

It is important to remember the three primary directives with which all emergency responders must establish emergency incident priorities: life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. The time an emergency response organization spent on site during the preplanning process will allow its members to safely determine what their limitations are and what their emergency response organization could reasonably be expected to do in the event a well gets out of control.

The response organization should concentrate its efforts on the evacuation of civilians who are within the established hazard zones and determine the reasonable actions they should take based upon the presenting incident and the recommendations of the exploration company's health and safety professional and other company officials.

Most rig locations will have company men on site or close by. These people are experts and should become part of a unified command structure with the emergency response organization. Most companies have a tremendous amount of resources and can get them on site fairly quickly. Water trucks that are 4x4 and high-volume pumps are just some of the resources that can assist in the emergency operations. Remember, it is important to not get too close merely because the fire is not as big as the responders would have thought. The geological formation can shift or debris that is occluding the bore hole can break free--and the fire can intensify in a fraction of a second!

Closing Comments
Drilling operations are safe to have in close proximity to communities, but it is important that emergency responders take time to gain situational awareness of the associated hazards in regard to response to drilling rig locations. Exploration company health and safety professionals must make an opportunity to take local responders to the drilling location and allow time for them to walk the job down and preplan their response.

Responders should take into consideration everything from location access to additional equipment needs. In reference to the rig fire the authors recently investigated, one of the biggest barriers to the incident was being able to get equipment and personnel on location due to the rugged terrain.

An emergency response organization is more likely to respond to a rig location for a medical emergency than a fire; however, they must be prepared for a worst-case scenario. It is important to realize preplanning may also include accepting the fact that sometimes community evacuation and self-stabilization of a well incident is the best action emergency responders can take. Regardless, the safety of the community, responders, and exploration company employees is a two-way street and must be a cooperative approach, with both emergency responders and health and safety professionals seeking each other out to develop a safe plan of response.

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