Astronaut undertaking space walk on the International Space Station

The confined space entry paradox

There is no environment more hostile to life than space. Why then, do NASA continue to train and send people into space? Quite simply, because there are many jobs that cannot be done remotely. Perhaps the highest risk of these activities, extravehicular activities (EVAs), happen regularly. This year alone, 12 EVAs have been executed to carry out essential maintenance and repairs to the ISS. Despite all their technical excellence and vast budgets, certain jobs require human intervention.

Confined space entry is essential

How is this relevant to FPSOs? Well, it brings us back to the paradox in the title. Companies justify investment in new technology because confined space entry is perceived to be too dangerous and must be avoided at all costs. This ignores an inconvenient truth – that confined space entry can never be completely avoided. Whether it be to maintain equipment, reinstate coatings, clean tanks or carry out structural repairs, the most cost effective (and sometimes only possible) way to do this is manually.

That is not to say technology doesn’t have a place. We celebrate organisations who drive innovation and investment in technology to improve safety and efficiency offshore. Here at MTL we contribute to various JIP’s and industry committees to develop remote inspection techniques and hardware. We have developed our PYXIS integrity management software to exploit these advances in technology. Our software currently integrates directly with new hardware (drones, ROV’s and crawler vehicles) to take advantage of remote inspection technology where appropriate. Moreover, it uses efficient workflows to eliminate double handling of data and to enable data driven decisions to define and maintain risk based integrity management strategies.

But here’s the rub; time and again, we continue to see very poor practices being employed by these same organisations when confined space entry is required. The examples are numerous: spaces being ventilated directly from hazardous areas where the risk of fugitive hydrocarbons and toxic gases are sometimes present; a lack of understanding and preparation in terms of rescue planning; poor lighting; or a lack of relevant knowledge/training by the entry party. This is so wildly in contrast with stated industry ambitions.

Manage the risk properly

This disconnect in logic is worrying. On the one hand investing in tech to avoid confined space entry on the grounds of safety, but then on the other not giving it the due planning and care when it becomes unavoidable. This paradox deserves more focus and it doesn’t have to be this way.

Returning to the space analogy, since December 1998, there have been 244 spacewalks, all completed successfully with no loss of life. The risks are acknowledged, and appropriate mitigations are put in place, from robust procedures and risk assessment to highly trained personnel and selecting the right equipment. With similar care and attention to planning and preparation, confined space entry on offshore assets can be achieved safely.

For decades Marine Technical Limits (MTL) have safely and efficiently managed confined space entries on floating production facilities around the globe. Innovation sits at the heart everything MTL does. Since 2006 we have designed, refined and built robust Zone 1 ventilation equipment with onboard gas detection and automated shut-down systems to facilitate inspection, maintenance and repairs activities. This enables work normally done in the shipyard to be safely and efficiently undertaken offshore whilst assets remain in production. We thoroughly risk assess every scope, combining strong processes and experienced personnel with the right equipment. In doing so, we ensure that every CSE is carried out with safe and efficient execution of workscopes as a primary goal.