Oil workers train for job's big risks
By Lynda Edwards
The worker has two choices, both terrifying. Flames are engulfing his offshore oil rig. Toxic smoke is so thick that he can’t reach his coworkers escaping into lifeboats.
He’s on a small platform jutting out from the rig 100 feet above the sea. The nonswimmer wears an orange life jacket, but the waves below are 10 feet high.
He crosses his arms over his chest and jumps feet first, legs and spine straight—into a swimming pool, part of an Acadian Ambulance’s training facility. The imaginary escape ends as he bobs to the surface.
“This isn’t the preferred escape, but if you jump feet first and don’t imitate that Lipton Tea commercial where the guy falls with his arms outstretched, you have a good chance of surviving,” instructor Chris Broussard said last week. “It’s better than staying on a burning rig.”
Safety Management Systems—an Acadian company—trains oil workers in water and fire emergencies. High-tech equipment like a helicopter crash simulator make imaginary scenarios feel vividly real.
SMS started training oil workers in safety about six years ago; more than 35,000 enrolled last year. Classes are every week starting at $200.
Broussard said an increasing number of oil companies want all workers trained in rig safety, even those who work on rigs only occasionally.
Oil workers are seven times more likely to die on the job than the average worker, according to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control study.
“Catastrophic events like the Deepwater Horizon explosion attract intense media attention but do not account for the majority of work-related fatalities during offshore operations,” the report said.
Helicopter crashes were the leading cause of death, partly because those who survive impact often drown.
Trainees climbed into the crash simulator last week on Acadian’s North University campus to practice escaping from a helicopter underwater. The simulator is shaped like a helicopter without an engine or propellers.
A crane lowered and submerged the simulator in 12-foot-deep water, then flipped it upside down. Freeport McMoran computer network engineer Jason Branch, a trainee, slid out a window and swam upward.
“I’m not a rig worker, but I fly out to rigs,” Branch said. “These classes taught me how crucial it is not to panic. When the copter flipped over, it’s disorienting; for a moment, you can’t tell up from down. I remembered to let my jacket float me upward, then swam.”
Nathaniel Wilson, a Transocean Offshore Drilling deck pusher, was one of four nonswimmers who successfully completed the water class.
“The training makes me feel very confident,” Wilson said. “On a rig, everyone needs to know how to put out a fire or save someone from drowning. The nearest help might be 100 miles away.”
The men learned to keep track of each other in the ocean by linking in a long, floating line. They learned to inflate their T-shirts in case they lost their life jackets.
Then it was time to face the fire and smoke maze. Lafayette firefighter Brandon Broussard was filling a big metal building with impenetrable gray special-effects smoke, the kind commonly used on movie sets. Rescue Randy, an orange, naked plastic mannequin, was sprawled on the floor. Trainees had to crawl through the maze with compressed breathable air tanks strapped to their backs. Oxygen tanks would be a safety hazard on a rig. Two were tasked with carrying the 186-pound Randy into fresh air.
Meanwhile, Guy Honeycutt, a Rowan Co. superintendent, and his team hosed down a propane fire that instructors could trigger with the flick of a switch.
“One trainee has claustrophobia, and he asked to be removed from the smoke maze so he didn’t get the safety certification his employer wanted,” training coordinator Chris Grossie said. “Irrational fears aren’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes they can’t be conquered. It’s better to learn that in a class exercise than on a rig in the middle of an ocean.”