New equipment to improve offshore safety

For as long as there have been oil and gas platforms in the North Sea, people have relied on helicopters to access them. But yesterday, a revolutionary piece of equipment was unveiled in Lowestoft which could not only significantly improve safety for offshore workers, but may also change the face of the oil and gas industry forever.

For as long as there have been oil and gas platforms in the North Sea, people have relied on helicopters to reach them.

But yesterday, a revolutionary piece of equipment was unveiled at Lowestoft that might not only improve safety for offshore workers but may change the face of the industry forever.

The Offshore Access System (OAS), developed by Dutch company Fabricom, uses a sophisticated system of hydraulics to allow a walkway to be created safely between a ship and an oil or gas platform.

It means that, for the first time, companies can transport workers on and off platforms in the southern North Sea by boat, something that has until now been considered too dangerous.

One expert has likened it to being able to walk to work.

Using a support vessel provided by Dutch company Smit - the Smit Kamara - the system could revolution-ise delivery of services to unmanned platforms, enabling workers to sleep on board ship and simply climb on and off platforms when they are needed.

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As the pioneering ship made its debut in British waters yesterday, senior members of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) welcomed the technology, saying it had the potential to improve safety for offshore workers significantly.

HSE operations inspector Steve England said: "This is a concept that is at the cutting edge of technology, and we are very interested in how it works. We will be working very closely with Shell as this becomes operational in the southern North Sea.

"This is a way forward, an alter-native way of getting people on and off platforms, and we are keen to see how it can improve safety offshore."

The technology went operational in April but has only been used so far on Shell platforms in Holland. To date, the company has completed more than 400 successful hook-ups.

Shell is hoping to have the Smit Kamara operating in the southern North Sea by next April, and over the coming months it will be attaching compatible landing equipment to more than 50 Shell platforms.

Alan Jones, Shell's product champion for OAS said: "Historically, we have always flown to platforms, but it is becoming increasingly difficult because of the weather, because of the cost and the time wasted getting on and off. Also, we have a lot of ageing plat-forms that need a lot of maintenance.

"This vessel opens up a lot of doors to us. It has the operational capacity to be functional up to 300 days a year. We can use it for maintenance, for new projects. It is like having the platform onshore and being able to walk to work."

He added: "We have spent 20 to 30 years working with helicopters, and now the rules of the game have changed.

"Before, it was like a jigsaw puzzle getting all the people in the place at the same time to get a job done. With the boat you can have all the equipment and all the people you need in the same place at the same time. It gives you huge operational flexibility.

"Now it is about optimising the business by looking at when we need to use helicopters and when we need to use this vessel. But this could potentially have the ability to connect to offshore wind turbines in the future and may even mean we no longer need to man our platforms. At this stage we just don't know where it will lead. It is extremely exciting."