A backlog of vital maintenance on Australia's offshore oil and gas facilities after a cut in workers numbers to the risk to employees and production of a COVID-19 outbreak is worrying the offshore oil and gas safety regulator NOPSEMA.

NOPSEMA safety and integrity head Derrick O'Keeffe said the regulator had investigated the consequences of the response to the COVID-19 outbreak at offshore facilities.

The NOPSEMA inspections found a lack of workers had resulted in the deferral of some maintenance.

"I think it's as an area of concern for industry about how do you clear that backlog?" O'Keeffe said.

O'Keeffe compared the backlog to Australian hospital waiting lists that could take 18 months to clear after the halt in elective surgery

The safety chief also had worries about the slump in oil and gas prices hitting the industry as it deals with COVID-19-related operational restrictions

"Given the volatility of the industry I always get concerned when the price of oil goes down and you see evidence of jobs being cut, work not happening," O'Keeffe said.

"Generally, when the oil price goes back up again, blowouts tend to increase on a global basis, so I think it's a time for avoiding complacency.

"I think potentially now industry has one of the more challenging periods ahead, we all need to keep focussed."

O'Keefe was talking at a Petroleum Club of WA webinar earlier this week that brought together regulators, unions and industry groups to discuss lessons learned from the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concerns at Ichthys

Electrical Trades Union WA organiser Damian Clancy said more than 100 light fittings on the Ichthys Explorer central processing facility had failed a test of operating with battery backup

"They are in safety-critical areas; there is no one on the facility to fix them," Clancy said.

"Someone has performed the testing, they've identified the issue, but because the facility is down-manned to the point that it is, there is no one to rectify these issues.

"I know they are still producing and know they haven't caught fire and burnt into the ocean just yet, but there will be issues."

Clancy said one of his members started to be stood down in late February.

"There are things that will have gone by the wayside in that time, and it's imperative that the operators…get the facility back up to speed with the relevant manning."

The unionist said there was also a problem in a switchboard room on the Inpex Venturer oil production vessel. An Inergen fire suppression that should put fires out by filling the room with inert gas was not working.

NOPSEMA has not received any recent reports electrical issues on the Ichthys facilities, according to a spokesperson for the regulator.

"NOPSEMA does not comment on the specific performance of the facility's equipment unless it is subject to enforcement action," the spokesperson said.

"If further details are required, you may wish to obtain this information from Inpex."

Boiling Cold asked Inpex about both safety issues on its Ichthys facilities raised by the ETU and Inpex did not respond.

There is a history of electrical safety issues on the Ichthys facilities.

In mid-2018 NOPSEMA told Inpex to improve its safety practices after two workers received electric shocks while working on an isolated 33kV high voltage cable installed on the Ichthys Explorer in a repeat of a similar to another incident a year before.

Independent audits of the electrical safety of the Ichthys facilities reported by The West Australian in early 2019 found "an underlying culture rushing to meet deadlines has compromised the quality and compliance of the electrical installation."

Regulator called to listen more widely

Clancy said NOPSEMA needed to engage more with the workforce, especially contractors. He questioned whether the health and safety representatives NOPSEMA met with during inspections employed directly by the operator were as aware of problems as contractors that do the maintenance work.

"When you visit an offshore installation, I think there needs to be a proper auditing system of toolbox meetings," Clancy said.

"And when you find something that has been raised, three, four, five, six months earlier and is still being in quotes' actioned' there needs to be something done."

Clancy called for the greater consultation between NOPSEMA, operators and unions put in place to react to the COVID-19 pandemic to continue.

"The two weeks in isolation, twelve weeks on roster, four weeks off that Woodside announced, that's not consultation, that's not communication with their workforce," Clancy said.

"If we want to talk about health, especially mental health, where was NOPSEMA when Woodside put that on the table?"

Maritime Union of Australia research officer Penny Howard said there were still many issues affecting offshore workers including border restrictions, testing regimes, living conditions in quarantine and rosters.

Rosters were "a really important issue for workers who've had their lives turned upside down quite abruptly," Howard said.

Howard said in response to the pandemic NOPSEMA had set up structures to improve communication between it, operators and unions.

"I think that's a great step forward that we should continue to build on," Howard said.

O'Keefe said the regulator was on a pathway to improve and the important conversations were now happening.

"I would like to think that the future is better than the past," he said.


Main image: Ichthys Explorer central processing platform. Source: Inpex