The continuing downturn in the geophysical industry has hurt the bottom-line performance of seismic companies. It also may be affecting worker performance and safety, leading to a higher number of injuries and even deaths.
"The situation in North America is that we've had seven or eight fatalities since the first of the year. It's the first time in my career that I can remember that kind of thing happening. It's alarming," said Murray Saxton, corporate HSE officer for CGG Americas Inc. in Houston and chairman of the Health and Safety Committee of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC).
"IAGC recognizes the situation," he added, "and is making a concerted effort, through a number of initiatives, to enhance industry safety."
HSE stands for "Health, Safety and Environment," areas of increasing concern for the industry. Safety managers speculate that a depressed business environment and rapid changes in the work force could add to the risk of harm, according to Saxton.
"Perhaps our expertise is leaving. People may not be sure where they fit into the new organization. All of these things may contribute to the problem, we think, even though the companies are strengthening their commitment to safety," he said.
IAGC tracks marine seismic safety statistics using information provided by eight major contractors. In 1997, the companies recorded 129 "reportable incidents," a category made up of fatalities, lost-time injuries, medical treatment cases and reduced workday cases.
In 1999, they reported 401 such incidents.
Chuck Darden, IAGC president, said geophysical companies have had an outstanding record of improving safety, even more than the rest of the oil industry, until just about the time the slowdown began.
"The (geophysical) industry's safety performance improved for several years until the last couple of years, and then it more or less flattened out," he said. "Maybe there's a common reason for this burst of fatalities after improvement for so many years."
But Darden added that too few facts are available and too few statistics exist to make any overall assumptions linking the deaths.
"I think anybody who says anything specific about these fatalities is just pulling things out of the air," he said. "The companies are still investigating some of those accidents."
Saxton also emphasized that the idea of an industry downturn affecting safety is "opinion, not science." However, he noted that numerous changes have occurred in the geophysical sector during a period of reduced revenues.
"There's a lot of confusion," he said. "That's an enemy of safety."
Mike Covil, IAGC vice president in Seven Oaks, England, near London, gathers safety statistics for the organization.
He downplayed the significance of the increase in reportable incidents.
"Once you set out to collect data in a more rigorous regime you get a peak," he noted. IAGC started collecting the safety numbers from offshore contractors two years ago, and the jump in incidents reported probably reflects the companies' new effort to track such data, he said.
"We are now trying to collect safety statistics for land and transition-zone seismic," Covil said. "When we have them they will be posted on the Web, and we hope to have them this year."
IAGC works with other offshore organizations in Europe to develop HSE guidelines. Covil chaired a group that devised a formal set of "HSE Competence Assessment and Training Guidelines," issued through OGP, the international oil and gas producers association. IAGC also is one of a dozen sponsors of the "Step Change in Safety" program.
That initiative began with the goal of increasing safety performance by 50 percent, Covil said. He described it as a response by the United Kingdom's offshore industry to a perceived peaking in safety improvement.
"I think what happened is that there's been an enormous effort put into safety, and over the last five years the improvement has plateaued, it reached a level," he said. "Academics have argued about why that happened."
Geophysical companies now are beginning to target safety at the individual employee level instead of work groups, according to Covil.
He added that the industry hopes individual attention will produce renewed improvement in its safety record.
Warning: Rookie at Work
Joe Rogers, who operates Rogers Environmental and Safety Services in Houston with his wife, Kathi, said, "the oil industry is trying to do a much better job of policing itself."
However, "I've seen our safety slip some in the past two years because of economics," he added.
Rogers estimated that "60 percent of people working out in the field have some safety and environmental training, with environmental lagging.
"I've been in this business for 40 years," he continued. "We've always done a very good job of gathering data and, generally, a good job in safety. But today, the demands are so much greater."
Personnel turnover causes a problem when trained workers leave the industry and new, inexperienced employees enter a hazardous environment, according to Rogers.
"I've worked with some major oil companies that have a special sticker for hard hats that say the person is a new hire," he said.
Training new hires could be a critical challenge if the geophysical sector rebounds sharply, following the rest of the industry. Mike Arnold, vice president of Proforma Safety International in Kingwood, Tex., sees that as a looming problem.
"The worry that the safety people have right now is that the industry was down last year and is down again this year," he said. "Training is down with companies not doing a lot of training.
"Our biggest fear is that when things kick back in, people who have been trained in safety and know what's happening will have taken other jobs. We'll have to start from ground zero."
Rogers noted that geophysical workers face a huge number of distinct hazards. Even mundane activities can be a threat under the right -- or wrong -- circumstances.
"Driving is one of our major hazards, because people get up early and go to work early," he said. "They work long, long hours and they get very tired.
"There are a lot of fields we work in that have poisonous gas in them, hydrogen sulfide or H2S. We don't want to put people out there unless they have some way to protect themselves if there is an exposure," he said.
Old fields being reworked can be a special problem when H2S has corroded pipelines, according to Rogers. He said his company has started making charts to list all the hazards that may be found in an area.
Offshore activities present their own set of hazards.
"When I first got into it, we were using 90-foot vessels for seismic offshore," Rogers said. "Now, we're running 500-foot vessels."
Yes, the bigger boats provide more protection, Rogers noted -- but more can go wrong on them.
Employees of geophysical firms have to be cognizant of environmental requirements as well as potential safety hazards.
Environmental precautions can be just as painstaking as safety routines, Rogers explained.
"On our vessels we never dump anything overboard," he said. "The trash is not thrown overboard -- we hold it. We even have batteries that are hazardous material. We box those up and send them back by crew boat.
"We just don't go willy-nilly across a field anymore. Along the coastline, especially, we have a lot of threatened and endangered species."
Saxton said companies are looking for "competence" in employees as much as HSE training, because "the mere act of taking training courses may not necessarily assure that a person is competent to do a job." A course may have been of poor quality or people may not have paid attention, for example.
"A couple of years ago we had a crew in Argentina," Rogers recalled. "They had been warned and warned and warned, never cut a tree down until you alert everybody in the area.
"They cut a tree down and it hit a guy, and now he's a paraplegic."
Setting the Standard
In addition to everyday activities, geophysical crews have to deal with dangerous special hazards -- handling explosives, for example. Those activities require focused training, Arnold said.
"Explosive manufacturers have done a real good job of making explosives difficult to detonate unless you have the right circumstances. But if something can happen, it will," he said.
Arnold called IAGC "the leading driver for safety in the geophysical industry -- they determine a lot of what needs to be done."
Darden said his organization sets standards for the geophysical sector, "particularly for operational practices and for HSE issues throughout the world. We also coordinate closely with other professional groups, trade associations and government agencies in helping assure these standards are reasonably consistent on a global basis."
That consistency is especially important as seismic crews move from country to country and need to know what HSE standards they have to meet, Darden said.
He added that IAGC seeks to set minimum standards, not comprehensive HSE requirements.
"IAGC welcomes the role as the standards setter, especially for HSE, although we are careful to emphasize that our published standards should be minimal practices followed by the industry, and not an end in themselves," he said.
Arranging training sessions can be a challenge when employees have to be removed from the field and taken away from their jobs for a length of time, according to Arnold. His company conducts training on-site, sometimes spending several days to get all employees through the same course.
"We might have to do it four times because of the way the crews are split up," he said. "Offshore there are two crews, a marine crew and a seismic crew. You might catch one on a 12-hour shift and then the next crew on the next shift."
Saxton agreed that companies are challenged to provide adequate training.
"It's hard to coordinate. It's difficult to do without shutting down at least parts of your operation. It's expensive. And, particularly on a large crew, once you have people trained, it just seems impossible to keep up an ongoing training program without an incredibly large staff," he said.
At the same time, HSE issues are in the forefront of industry concerns. Saxton said he spends a lot of time reviewing contracts and proposals, and "sometimes half a contract or half a bid tender is health, safety and environment or risk related."
"I've seen 50- or 60-page attachments -- Exhibit A, if you will -- that describe the health, safety and environment requirements. On the other hand, I've seen things from some of the smaller independents without anything about HSE," he added.
HSE trainers also observe that large seismic companies and major oil companies devote the most resources to safety and environmental training, while some smaller geophysical companies may be short of money and concentrate on getting any work they can in a tight market.
Overall, Saxton thinks the industry is making progress in HSE.
"The effort is increasing and increasing. The programs are getting better. There's a lot of commitment in effort and manpower," he said, which has extended to keeping safety personnel on the payroll during this downturn.
Saxton acknowledged that HSE issues may be less of a concern in emerging nations, but he sees more and more smaller foreign companies turning to organizations like IAGC for help.