Weather watch: working in extreme temperatures

Last edited: 28 August 2018

This summer has seen soaring temperatures send records tumbling around the globe. But in some countries where BP operates, the challenges of extreme weather are ever present. BP Magazine reports on two locations where supplying energy to the world means working in brutal conditions – from the deserts of Oman, where summertime temperatures can reach 55°C (130°F), to the North Slope of Alaska, where the mercury can dip below -45°C (-50°F) in winter

Oman

Putting on another layer of clothing in the blistering desert heat may sound like a strange move, but that’s exactly what BP workers are doing in Oman. Wrapping up with an extra vest is part of a trial to see if wearable technology can provide early warning signs of heat stress.

During the hottest months of the year, the Government of Oman mandates breaks and shorter working hours, but it’s down to individual workers to know when they are at risk – and that’s not always obvious. One person may succumb to heat stress after two hours of work at 32°C (90°F), while another experiences no ill effects after working an entire shift – even in much higher temperatures.

So, a BP team combining safety expertise, local knowledge and digital innovation capability looked for a 21st-century solution to help ensure that workers are safe in the sun. 

“The US Army spent more than a decade developing algorithms to measure core-body temperature non-invasively to predict heat stress,” says Blaine Tookey of BP’s digital innovation organization (DIO). “They collected the most accurate results by basing their core-temperature estimate, called a heat-strain index (HSI), on comparisons of past and present individual heart rates.”

The Army openly licensed the algorithm to multiple vendors and determined that a body vest called ‘Black Ghost’ developed by a company called Equivital currently provides the most accurate (and comfortable) measurement.

The lightweight vest is worn against the person’s skin and a data card within sends measurements of the wearer’s heart rate to his or her smartphone. The vest is also capable of transmitting electrocardiograms, respiratory rate, skin temperature, location and even an alert if they have fallen.

Each vest is programmed individually following a health examination of the wearer. If the crew member’s HSI exceeds his or her individual parameters, the smartphone sends a text and email alert to the rig medic and health and safety lead. An amber code indicates potential concern; a red code, a true emergency.

After a successful pilot on a rig in Oman, the team is starting scale-up while also keeping a close eye on this area of rapid advancement. Could earpieces or wristwatches, for example, provide equally accurate HSI data but with more comfort, less cost – and no laundry?

Alaska

Greg Sarber, BP drilling superintendent in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, works in an environment that’s so cold that car tyres can turn square.

When just walking outside requires special clothing, equipment and a stringent list of safety protocols, it’s easy to see how Sarber would come to compare working in Prudhoe Bay to being in another world.

Prudhoe Bay is an environment of extremes. Located 250 miles (400 kilometres) north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska’s North Slope, its inhabitants experience months of perpetual darkness, blizzards whipped up by winds of more than 40 miles per hour, and winter temperatures that dip below -45°C (-50°F).

Despite these obstacles, BP has spent the past four decades helping to develop Prudhoe Bay into one of the largest oilfields in North America, producing more than 13 billion barrels of oil since the late-1970s. And the past and future success of this vital field depends on a strict adherence to an effective and comprehensive safety system.  

Normal outdoor work wear for Sarber includes insulated boots and gloves, long underwear, heavy thermal pants and jacket, and a hard hat with an insulated liner that wraps around his face.

On the North Slope, vehicles are sometimes left running so the engines won’t freeze, but even idling, a pickup’s engine won’t stop its tyres from developing flat bottoms. The extreme cold reduces air pressure and flexibility in the tyres. Leave a car or truck motionless for long enough, and the tyres will go ‘square’.

Despite the harsh conditions and the challenges they present, people like Sarber, who has spent more than two decades working above the Arctic Circle, continue to return, driven by a deep commitment to US energy security.

“It’s great to be able to produce oil in America for Americans. It’s a vital thing and it’s a great sense of accomplishment to help do it,” he says.

Weather safety checklist:

Severe weather periods are broken down into three safety phases, which reflect varying levels of danger.

  • Phase I: Caution – reduced visibility; normal vehicle travel is permitted using extreme caution and is typically declared whenever visibility is reduced to less than 500 feet. Between 1 October  and 1 May, both drivers and passengers must wear cold weather gear.
  • Phase II: Restricted convoy only; typically declared whenever visibility is reduced to 250 feet. Travel is permitted only in convoys of two or more vehicles. A journey management plan must be developed and approved by an immediate supervisor.
  • Phase III: Closed – critical/emergency travel only; typically declared whenever visibility is reduced to 100 feet. Convoy travel will be permitted with heavy equipment escort only. All travel shall be approved and coordinated by the Incident Management Team. 
     

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