Getting to grips with working offshore
PUBLISHED: 09:35 01 March 2011 | UPDATED: 10:20 01 March 2011
FOR a period of time, after losing sight of the coastline near Great Yarmouth, there is nothing.
There is the sea and the early morning sun starting to light up the sky, but, apart from the deafening noise of the helicopter, for a while there is nothing else.
Then the first installation comes into sight. And then another and suddenly you are hovering above dozens of natural gas platforms.
For hundreds of people who work offshore, this is the normal commute to work.
The benefits are that you commute only once a month for a two-week shift, you get good pay, free board (including a 24-hour cake cabinet) and lodgings and you then get two full weeks off.
But the downsides are that the lodgings are remote, 40 miles off the coast in 100ft of water inside what looks like a stack of large painted red shipping containers alongside up to 44,000bhp roaring engines.
You have to say goodbye to your family every month for two weeks, missing anniversaries and family events, and work minimum 12 hour days in an often harsh and dangerous environment with little choice but to get on with your colleagues.
And if that is not enough to put people off, to work offshore you have to have an offshore medical and go through basic offshore safety induction and emergency training (BOSIET) – which includes having to get out of a submerged inverted helicopter simulator.
It isn’t for everyone – and for good reason.
Dr Hari Krishnan is responsible for issuing offshore medical certificates at Abermed, in Gorleston, which deals with six to 12 offshore accidents a month in the Southern North Sea sector.
For the medical, they look at everything from hearing to white finger – where fingers go numb. But the most common reason workers fail their medical is mental health, he says.
“Looking for health issues is crucial,” he said. “But, if issues can be managed, there is now more flexibility for them to work. Diabetics can be acceptable because now monitoring can be done three times in a day. Before they couldn’t.”
Despite the potential barriers, the industry still attracts a diverse workforce, from ex-chefs to former accountants. And many enjoy the job.
From leaving school Alex McBeath wanted to go offshore. He trained and worked as a chef and got a job on a platform. After retraining, he now works as an operations technician on Perenco UK’s Leman 27A, one of the biggest installations in the North Sea at a quarter of a mile long,
“There’s something different every day,” he says, watching a bank of electronic displays and screens while his colleagues face the freezing temperatures outside.
“It could be an easy day or non-stop. It’s a good bunch of lads – everyone just keeps each other going. You just get on. It’s your choice to be here at the end of the day.
“The hardest part of the job is the being away from home, especially at Christmas or birthdays and anniversaries.”
It’s also hard when the toilets get blocked or the hot water runs out. But the worst is getting stuck offshore because of bad weather or fog after the end of a two-week shift, cutting into workers’ valuable time in their other lives onshore.
The key is finding ways to pass the time.
Workers were once allowed to fish off the platforms, but it was stopped, the reason being given as safety for the divers occasionally working below the platforms.
However, it is thought it was really stopped to halt a cottage industry, which saw large cod filleted, chopped up, frozen and taken ashore to be sold to local chippies.
Elsewhere, a swimming pool was allegedly built on a platform off Africa and the Norwegian installations are said to be equipped with tennis courts.
A number of years ago workers created terraced gardens on a Shell platform with astro-turf between the flower beds. On 27A there is a gym, pool, films, computer games and even the occasional inter-platform bingo is not unknown.
But in reality most keep their heads down, passing the time before they can head home. And, apart from the occasional spot of wildlife watching when a shoal of mackerel, basking sharks or migrating birds pass by, there is little time for hobbies.
For those based on the installation, the working day runs from about 6am to 6pm throughout the two week shift.
For contractors, like Dean, from Lowestoft, it starts earlier, flying from Yarmouth every morning to carry out work checking cranes on the installations.
Dean’s choice to come offshore was a simple one: “It was work offshore or work in Asda,” he said.
However, now he’s working towards a degree and hopes to move into offshore insurance.
For Steve, one of many ex-forces offshore workers, it was a change of career. He got a job offshore after the recession hit the Norfolk-based tower crane company he was working for.
Despite having been in the Gulf, Africa and Bosnia, his first trip offshore was still a surprise. “When I flew out the first time it was like Waterworld, the film,” he said. “But you get used to it.”
Workers – and their partners – get used to having split lives.
Dave, from Middlesbrough, worked at ICI for 14 years before going offshore.
He said: “It was hard at the start. It’s a completely different way of life, being away from home. There is a different mindset. But you talk about stuff here you wouldn’t at home.”
But although it can be bleak, most on 27A are glad to be working in the North Sea – not for the stunning skies, wildlife and banter – because of the emphasis on safety and the environment.
Simon Friend, offshore operations engineer for Perenco on 27A, has been in the industry 25 years.
“Safety wasn’t bad but the culture has changed significantly,” he said. “Producers used to be production conscious more than safety. But we are pretty good.
“We do an awful lot ensuring there are no leaks to sea.”
Safety can be as simple as rules like putting lids on the tops of hot drinks, wearing three layers when you travel by helicopter in winter and making sure people hold hand rails – you soon get in the habit.
But it is also failsafes, systems, checks, good habits and a permit to work system – most work requires a permit which means the job is assessed first.
Even taking photographs on the installation required a permit to work.
As a result, offshore safety has improved.
Between 2007/8 and 2009/10 there were no offshore fatalities in the sector in the UK – which has an estimated 26,600 workers, according to the Health and Safety Executive.
And where there are accidents, they are mostly minor and due to slips or falls.
Which makes most “normal” work environments, in fact, look rather risky environments.
At the end of my trip to 27A, I was asked if I would work offshore.
Having spent a weekend out there, I would – but only for a couple of years, I said.
“That’s what they all said when they started,” was the response.