At ExxonMobil Development Company, Tom Mekelburg, functional safety support group lead, says, “Some of Archimedes’ challenges are still basic issues in lifting and hoisting decisions like where to stand when you’re picking up a load with a hook weight of 12,000 tons.”
But there are many areas where Archimedes didn’t leave much guidance for today’s engineers: For example, when that hook weight is spread out over a structure 300 feet tall, 40 miles offshore in 4,000 feet of water – or when you’re building in safety factors, planning redundant backup systems and dealing with environmental considerations in remote, offshore locations.
For ExxonMobil, the final lift or hoist can be the most dramatic single part of a long and costly process. But the whole project chain from design to delivery can take years, cost billions of dollars and involve the teamwork of thousands of company employees and contractors.
And that is just the part managed by ExxonMobil. “We also use external, third-party facilities, equipment and construction yards that have to be reserved for years,” says Mekelburg. Installing some offshore platforms and modules requires third-party owned construction vessels so large and sophisticated that there are only one or two in the world that can do the job. And they’re booked years in advance meaning that other companies share the same challenges.
An industry wide standard for shared solutions
In the past few years, companies, contractors, designers and suppliers were converging on the same expensive technological problems and solutions, many of which hinged on the best lifting and hoisting strategies and practices. “The need for new, industry wide standards was growing,” says Mekelburg, who represented ExxonMobil on the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers’ Lifting and Hoisting Task Force.
In April 2006, the task force issued a report with recommendations to formalize and institutionalize industry wide experience and make the best technical and safety practices available to all companies and their employees. It wasn’t hard to see how companies could contribute to and benefit from one another’s experiences.
But the task force meetings were lively. Each company’s existing requirements were based on its own experience and best practices. Contractors who do cutting-edge work had developed their own areas of expertise. They wanted to be able to translate that experience from one job to the next, without massive contract renegotiation or retraining employees for very similar projects. The task force report dealt with all these issues.
Disciplined safety focus
According to Mekelburg, ExxonMobil’s participation was guided by two principles: First, sharing safety is always the right thing. “We knew the recommendations could be the world standard for years to come – often in areas where we have played a pioneering role. We had a lot of safety expertise to share.”
Second, standardization can reduce problems with design and construction, with joint venture operations and with many other areas of industry activity. “Any safety standard at ExxonMobil is integrated into our operations, our employee training and our contractual relationships,” says Mekelburg. “We believe across-the-board integration truly standardizes the processes from one company to another.”
Were there problems along the way? “Occasionally,” says Randy Stadler, Safety and OIMS manager, “but often they were fairly subtle. For example, there was considerable discussion about the criteria that define a routine versus a non-routine lift when developing a lift plan.” Many suggestions gained quick support from task-force members.
Small jobs are like big jobs
At ExxonMobil, the integration of standardized safety processes is well advanced. Small projects are expected to meet the same disciplined planning and execution standards that large ones do. “This was a shock to some people,” says Mekelburg.
“Sometimes the process of planning, personnel designation, action steps, and so on, can mean a 40-minute meeting to plan a 10-minute lift. And ExxonMobil is not only okay with that standard safety process, we expect it every time. It is part of ExxonMobil’s ‘Nobody Gets Hurt’ philosophy, and it justifies itself every time we complete a job safely.”
It also proves itself on the bottom line. Big job or small, the safest company is generally the most well-run. This is particularly true for operations in remote areas where accidents can mean medical evacuation time, added days for repair and the need to replace damaged or lost equipment. As Stadler puts it, “We believe that well-integrated safety and standardization practices deliver the best on-time, on-budget project assurance for every company and the whole industry.”