November 17, 2017

Oil and Gas Drilling Rig Hazards

Jonathan L. Pennington, Paul Pennington, Jeffrey Bennett
Occupational Health and Safety Online

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.”

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