Supporting the offshore workforce through COVID-19

Article published in The Regulator | Issue 2: 2020

In early March, NOPSEMA wrote to offshore petroleum industry operators regarding COVID-19, asking them to review their infectious disease management plans to ensure they had arrangements in place for reducing health risks to the workforce. This correspondence was followed by a survey, which aimed to gain assurance that the industry had systems in place, and had commenced implementing arrangements, to manage health risks to their workforce and reduce those risks to as low as reasonably practicable.

NOPSEMA then conducted inspections of each of Australia’s active facility operators to review their survey responses in greater detail. Each inspection was conducted remotely in recognition of the need to reduce the risk of transmission, and included a teleconference between inspectors and facility Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs). During the teleconference, HSRs were able to describe to the inspectors what they were seeing and experiencing with respect to how the operators had implemented COVID-19 management systems and procedures, whether operators had provided useful guidance, and the quality and frequency of communication between the operator and the workforce. These teleconferences helped inspectors to determine whether the strategies described by the operators were being implemented, and to identify areas requiring improvement. For the facilities inspected, all facility HSRs were provided a copy of the inspection exit brief, allowing them to see both the positive findings as well as the improvements required so they could follow up with facility management, if necessary. Where significant deficiencies were identified, NOPSEMA held follow-up meetings with HSRs to verify that the improvements described by the operator had been implemented and were having the desired effect.

Better practice examples identified through these inspections have been collated and shared with Australian offshore facility operators, state regulators, international regulators (IRF), health and safety representatives, and members of the Australian offshore petroleum industry workforce. This is available on NOPSEMA’s website at: https://www.nopsema.gov.au/assets/COVID-19/A721187.3.pdf

Outcomes of NOPSEMA’s inspection of operator arrangements for COVID-19

Based on our initial inspections of the operator’s arrangements for COVID-19, NOPSEMA considered that the vast majority of operators had appropriate and reasonable arrangements in place for managing the health risks to personnel. Where opportunities for improvements were identified, operators were generally quick to respond, which is important given the rapidly changing circumstances.

Common good practices include adopting enhanced cleaning protocols and limiting personnel on board to minimum manning levels. Importantly, these minimum manning levels took into account the need for ongoing safety-critical inspection and maintenance activities. As the manning levels decreased, operators were able to ensure appropriate physical distancing requirements, particularly in relation to accommodation. Meal times were staggered with consideration given to how food is served to reduce contact between people and with surfaces. In addition, many operators introduced a 14-day monitored isolation/quarantine period prior to workers going offshore, with associated screening and testing during that period.

Findings from these COVID-19 inspections suggest that there are some common areas for improvement in relation to operators demonstrating that their systems have been implemented and are effective, by way of auditing and conducting desktop drills. Many operators have now conducted audits and drills with learnings being built back into their systems quickly. Another area for attention is in relation to workforce engagement, particularly in relation to proposed roster changes, as discussed further below.

Roster changes implemented by some operators

As mentioned above, some operators have introduced pre-mobilisation quarantine/isolation and monitoring periods prior to travelling offshore to reduce the risks of transmission of COVID-19. Several different roster patterns have been considered, including rosters that involve various lengths of extended periods offshore. While NOPSEMA acknowledges that changes to roster arrangements are an important consideration in managing the risks of COVID-19, NOPSEMA notes that operators need to ensure that the associated impacts on fatigue and psychological hazards are taken into account, are documented, and involve extensive workforce consultation including HSRs and other workforce representatives. To highlight this as an emerging issue, NOPSEMA published a safety alert on COVID-19 Roster Changes on its website at https://www.nopsema.gov.au/resources/regulatory-alerts/covid-19-roster-changes/

This safety alert was updated to provide reference to a wellbeing framework jointly developed by APPEA and Safer Together.

NOPSEMA has responded to concerns from workers in relation to proposed roster changes and encourages operators to engage with worker groups and unions early in the process so that all parties have clarity around the changes being proposed and the additional controls to be implemented to reduce fatigue and psychological risks. Notwithstanding the above, NOPSEMA considers that extending periods offshore significantly, particularly in these challenging times where members of the workforce are concerned about the wellbeing of family members, may pose other risks that also require careful management.