How a Launch Test Failure Improved Freefall Lifeboat Safety

A few months ago PSA issued a new journal providing valuable information on some of the most relevant issues and challenges that are being faced by the oil & gas industry in the field of safety. The following information is an extract from PSA’s journal “Dialogue” regarding a freefall lifeboat test on an offshore platform.

2013.12.17 - How a Launch Test Failure Improved Freefall Lifeboat Safety

It is strange to think how great an influence a relatively minor local event like this lifeboat test has had – not only on the NCS but also worldwide, says Hans Skeide. He was the chief safety delegate (HVO) at the time on the Veslefrikk B platform in the North Sea, which had just taken delivery of new skid-mounted freefall lifeboats. Replacing old davit-launched craft, these merely had to be put through a final test before becoming operational as the evacuation system. Skeide says he and the other HVOs on Veslefrikk needed to take a strong line with operator Statoil to get this last check carried out.

“Sindre Nøringset, Jan Magne Kaland and I joined forces to apply pressure in order to secure the trial drop – even though it was required by the regulations. “We really had to push to obtain a proper installation test. But we were a strong HVO team, who had read the regulations and knew how to argue our case.”

A lot of shilly-shallying and delays occurred before what was supposed to be a simple launch took place. Loaded to 110 per cent of its weight capacity, the boat’s safety catches were released and it slid down the skid.

“I’d just gone ashore when the drop finally happened,” Skeide says. “I remember that the phone rang, with the message that the test fall had gone badly.” The lifeboat had proved unable to cope when it hit the sea, and suffered extensive damage in the process. Its superstructure had caved in under the water pressure. In addition, the hatch in the bows was driven in, allowing a flood of water to enter. The stern hatch had also been blown out.

“If there had been people on board when the lifeboat hit the sea, many of them could have been killed,” Skeide emphasises. The incident sparked a huge commotion. Without lifeboats available, Statoil’s only option was to halt production and reduce staffing on the platform.

Skeide joined the internal team to investigate the incident, which brought new information to the surface. A number of serious faults and deficiencies in the lifeboats were exposed. Nor were these problems confined to Veslefrikk. It transpired that Statoil’s Kristin installation in the Norwegian Sea had the same type of lifeboats. Even worse, the challenges soon proved to be relevant for all the installations involved in petroleum production on the NCS.

“Nobody had envisaged the consequences this would have,” says Skeide. The Veslefrikk test marked the start of an extensive operation.

Projects were initiated under the leadership of the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association (formerly the OLF) and the Norwegian Shipowners Association. Bit by bit, a picture began to emerge which revealed that neither freefall nor davit-launched lifeboats on the NCS satisfied the requirements set by the regulations.

Weaknesses related to the structural strength of the superstructure and hull, gravitational forces acting on passengers, propulsion, load-carrying capacity and stability.

As an HVO and official of the Norwegian Union of Energy Workers (Safe), Skeide has followed the lifeboat work closely over the eight years since the fateful fall on Veslefrikk. “Many people in the industry initially reacted by virtually denying the problems. These were eventually taken more seriously, but dealing with them proved a lengthy process.”

More and more of his time was devoted to the issue after 2005, with fewer and fewer trips offshore. He now works full time for Statoil’s lifeboat project.

In his view, the commitment made by the company to improving these craft is deserving of respect. “Statoil has spent hundreds of millions of kroner on this work, and assigned many able people to the job. It’s been in the vanguard here.

“I see that other companies are lagging behind. But when we manage to get this implemented in Statoil, I think the others will soon catch up.” The PSA has worked since the Veslefrikk test on regulatory changes and on getting the whole industry to take the lifeboat issue seriously. Its requirement is that the level of safety must be the same for everyone working in the Norwegian petroleum industry.

Even though substantial improvements have been achieved since 2005, however, important work remains to be done with the stock of lifeboats. New regulatory requirements for rescue and evacuation systems on the NCS are currently under development at the PSA, with the aim of bringing them into force on 1 January 2015.

These will cover freefall and davitlaunched lifeboats as well as their launching systems, and other types of rescue and evacuation equipment. Formulation of the regulations is being pursued in dialogue with the tripartite Regulatory Forum, where Skeide has contributed on several occasions as a Safe representative.

Companies could face major spending on modifications or purchasing new lifeboats as a result of the regulatory changes. But it remains to be seen how large these costs will actually be. “Some try to argue that they’ve never had to use the lifeboats and that these craft have cost more lives than they’ ve saved,” observes Skeide.

“But we can’t eliminate the probability that lifeboats or rescue equipment may be needed. Such arguments rest on past experience rather than future assumptions. “And everyone knows that an accident will happen sooner or later when the lifeboats are really needed, as the only option for escaping from the platform. “If you have to rely on craft which aren’t good enough, you’ll have lost out.”

Source: PSA

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