An examination of the study presented by Parkes (2012, pp. 1636-1651) reveals that the offshore petroleum/gas extraction industry is ranked among the most dangerous industries for workers due to the rather volatile nature of the extraction process (Parkes 2012, pp. 1636-1651). As Parkes (2012, pp. 1636-1651) explains, possible hazards in relation to working on an extraction platform include:
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- possible pump failure resulting in an explosive pressure build-up
- hazardous weather conditions creating the possibility of the platform being battered by hurricane-force winds
- the inherent dangers of working on a raised open platform within a constantly damp environment
- various natural disasters (i.e., earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc.)
Current estimates on the number of deaths per year within the industry vary due to a large percentage of offshore platforms often existing in countries, such as Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Mexico, and a variety of other states where the regulatory environment can best be described as “spotty” due to the relatively lax safety regulations that are implemented in favor of increased profitability (Chakhmakhchev 2010, p. 32).
Current estimates place the number of injuries that have occurred on a global scale between 2001 to 2010at 5,281 with several dozen dead (primarily, within Mexico and the U.S.; however, due to the relatively high number of reports originating from such countries, it is not truly indicative of the sheer scale of the deaths that occur within the industry on a daily basis) (Chakhmakhchev 2010, p. 32).
Fortunately, Australia has experienced relatively few deaths within its offshore petroleum extraction industry in the period of 2008 and 2012 with incidences, primarily, isolated to these of the Western Australian Coast and those within the Victorian coast. It does not mean that the potential does not exist for a significant amount of causalities to occur.
What you have to understand is that there is a significant disparity between the workplace health, safety and protection rights between workers on offshore drilling platforms and those that work on dry land (Outlook for Australian offshore remains bright 2012, p. 42).
An examination of relevant text on the issue reveals that workers on offshore platforms are exposed to a variety of adverse work stressors which impact their ability to perform and result in a higher likelihood for accidents to occur (Offshore oil & gas developments–snapshots from around the world 2012, pp. 1-16). These stressors can consist of the following:
- problems with circadian rhythm adjustment (day and night cycle) as a direct result of shift rotations which increase the likelihood of impaired judgment and awareness;
- cabin accommodations on platforms are often sparse, unsanitary and cramped, resulting in high incidences of claustrophobia and the transmission of pathogens which increase the likelihood of a person getting sick;
- lack of any sufficient medical facilities/medical personnel on the platform;
- 2-week to 3-week offshore tours of duty which significantly increase physical and mental fatigue due to the lack of sufficient outlets for rest and relaxation;
- the general noise of the environment is not conducive towards enabling proper rest, resulting in workers having notable sleep deprivation creating considerable issues related to their ability to actually work properly;
- work shifts often lasting for 12 hours or more resulting in the development of considerable physical and mental fatigue;
- limited shore leave and adjustment time which creates considerable work dissatisfaction;
- different standard of offshore workers’ training resulting in a talent pool that is relatively inexperienced and often woefully undertrained to be able to do their jobs properly.
A closer examination of the health and safety standards applied to onshore workers reveals considerable differences from their offshore counterparts wherein the presence of well-stocked medical facilities, the implementation of sufficient rest times, creating shift schedules allow adequate circadian rhythm adjustment as well as longer leave periods which create relatively healthy and happy employees.
These measures result in considerable lower level of accidents as compared to that within offshore extraction platforms. Based on this, the paper will explore the reasons behind the disparity between the application of OHS between onshore and offshore workers and determine whether OHS regulations should be harmonized in order to apply to any location within the petroleum industry. This paper assumes that harmonization of OHS laws, regulations and operational standards should be implemented between onshore and offshore operations
Current OHS Legislative Environment in Relation to Offshore Drilling Platforms
It is interesting to note that when examining the OHS legislative environment surrounding offshore drilling platforms, the regulating agency in charge of it, namely, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), has actually taken a relatively “hands-off approach” in policing the various offshore platforms within Australia which would create considerable dangers for workers within such industries.
Moreover, an examination of current legislation surrounding offshore petroleum industry workers shows that they are not subject to the same standards of training, regulation or access to experts within the field as found in subsequent legislative mandates that surround onshore workers.
Also, OHS laws, in general, have not been shown to significantly encompass offshore facilities and as such create a significant degree of potential OHS abuse, which can and often does happen on these platforms. The end result can only be described as an “impotent” legislative environment for offshore workers where their safety and security have not been properly addressed by both the policies of the Australian government and the agency that is supposed to ensure their protection.
Arguments surrounding the divergent application of OHS laws have resulted in numerous debates encompassing a variety of factors. However, it is generally agreed that the local demand within Australia for petroleum-based products is one of the reasons behind the apparently cavalier attitudes towards implementing stricter regulations for safety and protection of offshore drilling operations.
For example, current estimates of the electrical use per household within Australia show that on average, a home/apartment within the city requires roughly $1,500 per year on electricity consumption with an average daily use of 17 to 31 kWhs (Kilowatt-hours) per day or 8250 kWh per annum (Australia: Market profile, 2004: 22 – 23).
Such a fact calls for the production of 8 tons of carbon pollution per household created each year due to the fact that 90% of Australia’s energy needs are met through the use of fossil fuel-burning power plants (Australia, 2005: 39 – 44).
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With a population density of 4,575,532 within Sydney alone, this represents literally billions of tones of carbon gases released into the atmosphere on a yearly basis. One factor to consider when taking such figures into consideration is that cities, such as Sydney, are estimated to grow to at least 6 million by 2035, resulting in an even greater strain on the city’s resource infrastructure (Australia, 2005: 39 – 44).
This means that the use of utilities, such as electricity, will continue growing along with the amount of carbon gases released into the atmosphere, consequently reaching astronomical rates due to the increase in domestic consumption. The reason these particular facts are mentioned is the fact that they are directly responsible for the current problems in remedying the problem related to harmonizing OHS laws for onshore and offshore oil/ gas extraction.
First and foremost, it should be mentioned once again that 90% of Australian current power supply comes directly from fossil fuel resources, a great percentage of which include oil power plants (Hindmarsh & Matthews, 2008: 217 – 228).
As the population of Australia grows, and the demand for power increases, it has been shown by studies, such as those by Hindmarsh and Matthews (2008), that the predilection of the Australian government has been to create more fossil fuel burning power plants due to their relatively inexpensive cost in building and the fact that they have worked effectively for so long (Hindmarsh & Matthews, 2008: 217 – 228).
In fact, there are already even more plans to build several more fossil fuel burning power plants in order to meet the growing demand. While it may be true that governments have the responsibility in ensuring the continued safety and health of workers, the fact remains the same that in case of ever-increasing power demands in Australia, it is apparent that the needs of majority outweigh the needs of the few, and in this case, the apparent lax OHS standards within the offshore petroleum industry take less precedence over the necessity of ensuring that Australia continues to receive much-needed fossil fuel.
How else can it be explained that despite the flagrant OHS abuses by various offshore petroleum companies, their activities have continued to remain in operation? The fact is that the government can ill-afford any interruptions to Australia’s voracious appetite for power, stopping operations at offshore platforms that have exhibited that flagrant abuses of OHS would cause potential power crises within such cities as Sydney which would definitely be detrimental for government.
Based on this and despite numerous means of remediation or intervention, it is unlikely that any venture in harmonizing OHS laws between the onshore and offshore petroleum industry will truly succeed unless alternative forms of power are found immediately to replace fossil fuel usage; however, this is an outcome that is highly unlikely within the immediate future.
From this particular perspective, it can be seen that the legislative environment within Australia is far from conducive towards implementing regulations in favor of OHS law application on offshore oil extraction platforms. It must also be noted that there are also issues regarding the application of OHS laws on platforms which are at times not within the EEC (exclusive economic zone) of Australia, which encompasses a 200-mile radius from Australia’s shores.
While it is understandable to a certain extent that such platforms are not necessarily subject to Australian law given their location, some of these platforms are within the EEC, yet they are apparently generalized as belonging to the same category as those which are considered outside. There is also the fact that the workers on such platforms are Australian citizens and, as such, should be subject to the same rights as their onshore counterparts.
Harmonizing Australia’s OHS laws and regulations to be completely uniform covering any location
When examining the issue of harmonizing OHS laws and regulations involving any industry within the jurisdictions of the Commonwealth of Australia (including Commonwealth waters offshore) and its states and territories, you have first take into consideration the potential adverse impact if such laws remain as they are.
A brief look at the various comments and opinions regarding the latest deaths on an offshore platform on the Victorian coast reveals that many within the offshore petroleum industry at present are well aware of the inherent disparity between them and their onshore counterparts with some of the comments from current workers within the industry clearly indicating that the number of accidents will definitely increase within the coming years. However, nothing is done to improve the conditions on the offshore platforms.
Taking this into consideration, the necessity of implementing some form of harmonization becomes more apparent than it was. It must also be noted that it is highly unlike that the companies themselves which own and operate these platforms would actually implement more extensive OHS safety measures.
A brief examination of the offshore petroleum industry in general shows that there is a considerable degree of prolific cost-cutting and neglectful treatment of workers which often results in the sheer amount of accidents that have occurred within the past decade.
As such, it is thus the responsibility of the Australian government to implement equal methods of OHS laws and regulations between the onshore and offshore petroleum industries in order not only to create a certain degree of equality in operations between the two industries but to subsequently ensure that Australian workers are treated properly and in full accordance with the law.
Finding a Solution
The inherent problem with finding a solution to this issue is the fact that the problem goes far beyond just workers rights but encompasses the power needs of Australia. The fact remains that a large percentage of Australia’s fossil fuels are supplied by these platforms, and as such, it is necessary to continue keeping them in operation despite the inherent problems in OHS.
Another factor that should also be taken into consideration is the fact that the worker “churn” within the offshore petroleum industry is considerably high given the lackluster working conditions and the inherent dangers involved within the industry itself (Dickey, Watson & Zangelidis, A 2011, pp. 607-633).
This is one of the primary reasons as to why training and development programs, which are meant to ensure that only properly trained expert workers are on the platform are relatively few (Dickey, Watson & Zangelidis, A 2011, pp. 607-633).
Based on their experience, the companies that own such platforms have determined that investing into the training of workers who are going to leave soon is an inherently wasteful venture, and as such, it is their opinion that only the barest and the most necessary amount of training should be implemented in order to minimize cost and maximize profit.
The inherent problem with this particular way of operations is that it creates a considerable gap in knowledge and experience within the teams making the platforms result in a greater likelihood of mistakes.
Studies, such as those by Paterson (2011, pp. 369-389), have shown that one of the main reasons behind the relatively high rate of deaths and accidents within the offshore petroleum industry is directly related to the fact that in combination with questionable regulations which govern the industry, the lackluster method using which workers are trained contributes significantly to workplace accidents, and as such, proper training programs should not only be considered a necessity but a right by platform workers since it could in effect save their lives (Paterson 2011, pp. 369-389).
Based on the arguments presented within this paper, it can be stated that the harmonization of OHS laws, regulations and operational standards should be implemented in onshore and offshore operations.
Unfortunately, it has also been shown that extenuating factors involving the demand for oil, the general condition of the industry itself in the form of high churn rates and the fact that the current legislative environment surrounding the issue can be considered “impotent” show that it would take considerable public debate on the issue before any harmonization of laws between onshore and offshore petroleum industries can be established.
The only feasible way this paper sees this happening in the future is if a considerable loss of life due to inefficient OHS regulations on an offshore platform occurs. It is rather regrettable to take into consideration that such an event would be necessary for sufficient support for law harmonization in this particular case to actually occur.
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Dickey, H., Watson, V., & Zangelidis, A. 2011, ‘Job satisfaction and quit intentions of offshore workers in the UK North Sea oil and gas industry’, Scottish Journal Of Political Economy, 58, 5, pp. 607-633, Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost.
Hindmarsh, R., & Matthews, C. 2008, ‘Deliberative Speak at the Turbine Face: Community Engagement, Wind Farms, and Renewable Energy Transitions, in Australia’, Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 10, 3, pp. 217-232, GreenFILE, EBSCOhost.
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