The COVID-19 crisis has created an unprecedented challenge to the offshore sector, one that is truly global in impact but with a shifting picture in different regions, from recovery in some to the threat of a second wave in others. According to Bureau Veritas’ Dawn Robertson, the industry must adopt a mix of short-term measures to improve hygiene now while deploying cutting-edge digital technology which can be used to design, implement and maintain a healthier, safer working environment for the offshore sector in the long-term.
As COVID-19 rages its way across the globe, the offshore sector has not been immune to its effects. Cases have been common on US platforms, and medical evacuations across the North Sea platforms have also taken place.
The oil & gas sector is the epitome of resilience and adaptability, as it has proven in the past. It has responded to the pandemic by adopting stringent virus precautions for refinery and offshore staff, including frequent health checks, travel restrictions, onsite protective gear, dramatically reducing persons on board, individual accommodation, and longer offshore trips to include pre-departure quarantines.
However, these measures have raised costs and added major headaches for offshore personnel and complicated working conditions for operators when it comes to transportation and working patterns. Chevron, for example, has lengthened offshore crew schedules to at least 21 days from 14, closed gyms, and staggered meal breaks to reduce the risk of coronavirus outbreaks.
The sector now has to find the difficult balance by returning operations to pre-COVID-19 - or as close as possible - while reducing the risk for its personnel operating in a complex environment where prevention and decontamination are challenging.
This is where class societies, including Bureau Veritas, can play a vital role. What they offer is the reassurance and confidence for offshore operators that they are taking the necessary precautions to ensure that the offshore personnel can operate safely. Beyond this, as the offshore sector adapts to the ‘new-normal’, through regular surveys and audits, class societies can help ensure that the best practice and correct procedures are implemented.
Offshore’s unique challenge
The offshore sector is reliant on a constant flow of human capital, regularly traveling to and from offshore facilities. Every trip can increase the prospect of COVID-19 being spread and transferred to other crew members.
It is vital, therefore, that before anyone boards, they should have their temperature checked and any pre-existing health conditions disclosed. The company should provide hand wash and sanitizers at the point of boarding. Even before boarding, the oncoming crew should be instructed on the rules regarding social distancing, hand hygiene, health monitoring, and the reporting of symptoms.
Further COVID-19 disruption for the offshore sector can be seen with social distancing measures to reduce transmission. Anecdotally, social distancing rules in operation during the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing some operators to limit Crew Transfer Vessel (CTV) operations to a maximum of four passengers, a reduction from the usual 12 or 24. This impacts the amount of work that can be undertaken and clearly affects costs and productivity.
Classification societies, including Bureau Veritas, can offer support to the offshore sector as it resumes its operations while navigating the complexities of the new-normal. Restart initiatives will be vital by ensuring the appropriate health and safety standards are maintained and confidence restored.
There is no silver bullet solution, as the very nature of the offshore sector means social distancing measures will reduce capacity of staff and production output. However, we must appreciate the crew will be more confident if employers are taking the necessary steps to ensure their safety, as well as the duty of care to employees. This is where restart initiatives from class societies, including Bureau Veritas’s “safeguard” notation, will be crucial in giving confidence to the crew and employers.
Platform transmission risks
Beyond transportation, the platform itself offers a unique challenge in mitigating disruption stemming from COVID-19. Offshore platforms must be adapted as far as possible to ensure that the chance of transmission is reduced.
However, ask anyone who has been on an offshore platform, and they will highlight its tight confines. For example, the small footprint of most drilling rigs results in a crowded environment, which is a recipe for easy transmission of COVID-19.
Furthermore, the small space available for crew living quarters, where limited room and bunk beds are the norm, single occupancy cabins where possible would be an effective short-term solution.
In tackling COVID-19, we can also make a tangible difference in the medium and long-term for the crew’s overall health.
For example, hot and humid environments in warm waters provide fertile grounds for mould to grow, impacting air quality. In other cases, exhaust fumes from engines on pumps and other equipment is picked up by ventilation intakes. By investing in air ventilation systems, this could simultaneously reduce the prospect of transmission of COVID-19, while improving the general air quality for offshore workers.
Digital classification can mitigate now and prepare for the future
The new-normal has thrust new digital technologies from being solutions of the future to the practical necessities of today.
The services provided by class that can enable safe and compliant crew transfer and offshore operations are of the utmost importance. The ability to deliver inspections, surveys, and verification services remotely and digitally will have a transformative impact on how class societies perform their essential role now and in the future for the offshore sector.
In shipping, remote-enabled, digital class services - which are cheaper and safer for all parties - are increasingly becoming the go-to solution.
Classification societies have been at the forefront of adopting cutting-edge digital technology within the shipping sector. However, we’ve noticed among our offshore clients an interest to embrace technologies as they seek agility and resilience in preparation for the ‘new-normal’.
In particular, remote surveys can reduce transportation costs for owners, while negating the need for complex and risky tasks such as scaffoldings & rope access where digital solutions such as aerial drones can easily step in.
At BV, we’ve taken the next steps to anticipate the uptick in demand for remote surveys with our network of remote survey hubs already operational in Rotterdam, Piraeus, Istanbul, Singapore, and Dubai. We’re confident that the offshore sector will appreciate the positive business value and health and safety that will provide reassurance to both employers and crew.
We must be clear that the digital class isn’t a case of surveying being limited to video technology and drones. Rather, digital class goes above and beyond, encompassing cutting-edge technological innovation ranging from leading cybersecurity solutions, autonomous technology, and machine learning.
Beyond reacting to the immediate crisis, the offshore sector can glean long-term benefits from digitalization. For example, our digital twin technology is an innovative solution that has gained increasing traction in the offshore industry. The technology can offer cost-saving benefits from design and construction through operations and into decommissioning.
Longer-term, our digital twin technology will be able to help improve the resilience of the offshore sector to similar risks, such as by factoring hygiene and sanitation requirements into the design, construction, procurement, and operation of CTVs and other offshore facilities.
COVID-19 and the ‘new-normal’
The entire offshore sector, ranging from its service providers to platform workers, has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and its personnel deserves to be recognized as key workers for their indispensable role in the global economy.
However, the reports of crew members being confirmed with COVID-19 have enforced the importance of hygiene, sanitation, and social distancing measures. As non-essential crew members begin to return to work, it is important that they feel confident and reassured that everything has been done to ensure their safety.
Class societies, including BV, can offer a pathway to ensure that the offshore sector adapts to the new-normal. Whether it is negotiating the short-term disruption with remote surveys, to medium and long-term solutions to design platform and OSVs to improve hygiene and minimize the risk of transmission, class societies have an important role to play in the future resilience of the offshore sector.