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Oil & Gas Australia

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Confined Space Working – Safety Risk Quantified

May 11, 2022

A report on the safety risk of working in confined spaces, developed by Professor Andrew Woods of the BP Institute at Cambridge University, indicates that many organisations in the oil & gas industries have been operating below the generally tolerable levels of safety risk.

This may be because shareholders, board directors and insurers are not aware of the level of safety required by the regulators and courts and may believe that the latest procedures and equipment are being used by their managers to mitigate or eliminate risks.

Boards should set specific targets for risk so that management who carry out risk assessments know what the target is and take appropriate actions to meet or better these targets in order to protect life, corporate reputation, and value.

A risk of 1 in 1,000,000 is considered to be acceptable by most authorities, whereas anything below this needs to be justified as being ALARP (As Low As Reasonably Practicable) in other words that all has been done within reasonable limits to mitigate or eliminate the risk.

A number of organisations including the JIP (Joint Industry Project) for HITS (Hull Inspection Techniques & Strategy) participants of the Global FPSO Research Forum have made great efforts to improve safety in this regard, encouraging improved processes and robotic, diverless, unmanned technologies.

Whilst these initiatives have made improvements stakeholders need to be clear on the quantum of risk and importantly, how much should reasonably be spent to avoid confined space fatalities.

Professor Andrew Woods of the BP Institute University of Cambridge is a leading authority on this subject and was commissioned to write a report to address these questions and provide guidance on what might be done.

His research has revealed that most companies are operating below the broadly accepted levels of safety with consequent concerns on reputation, costs, and legal challenges if senior managers knowingly allow work to be carried out when safer methods are available at reasonable cost.

In 2020, HM Treasury in the United Kingdom assessed that the cost of an incident resulting in a fatality might be in the order of GBP 2 million (~US$2.75M). The ALARP (As Low As Reasonably Practicable) principle, and regulatory guidance suggests that expenditure to mitigate the risk should be in ‘gross disproportion’ to the cost of an incident, maybe up to ten times the cost.