Health, safety ‘overkill’ is the norm on Slope
Point Thomson Project Manager Nate Sanborn stands near the wellheads of Point Thomson Unit wells 15 and 16 on July 31; the injection wells that will cycle natural gas back into the reservoir. Gas for processing will be pulled from a third production well on the project’s west pad.
POINT THOMSON — North Slope work is big business representing thousands of workers and billions of dollars, and nothing is taken for granted to keep the oil and gas machine running safely and efficiently.
ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson Construction Site Manager Carlos Rivera said each first-timer to the natural gas field is initiated with 90 minutes of safety training and proper health protocol.
Hand sanitizer stations are visible from nearly everywhere in the Point Thomson camp buildings, and at mealtime, the requirement to wear disposable plastic gloves extends to everyone in the chow line, not just the cooks. The gloves go on immediately after a round of sanitizer. Electronic devices — grimy phones and smudged iPods — are prohibited in the cafeteria.
“It may be what some people think is overkill, but it works,” Point Thomson Construction Lead Randy Greenway said.
Isolated from the rest of the North Slope infrastructure about 60 miles east of Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse, Point Thomson is the $4 billion mega-gas field operated by ExxonMobil that’s been under construction for the past two years.
Jeff Kolean, a former Occupational Safety and Health Administration consultant and current health, safety and environment manager for the drilling company Nordic-Calista Services, said the procedures at Point Thomson are common practice in Slope camps. Preventing illness is the most effective way to keep people working, he said.
“We treat it like it’s a home away from home; but it’s not, and in the background we don’t treat it like a home away from home,” Kolean said.
In the six camps Nordic-Calista operates, housekeepers disinfect every handrail and doorknob at least once daily, he said, and more frequently if a cold or more significant bug is suspected to be in camp.
Bed linens at a Nordic-Calista camp are shipped back to Anchorage for every wash so they can subject to water that is at least 185 degrees Fahrenheit.
“When you go to a camp and go to sleep, your sheets have been sanitized rather than just washed in the commercial washer and dryer on site,” Kolean said.
Noting the infamous horror outbreak stories some vacationers have experienced, he said, “We don’t want what happens on cruise ships happening on the North Slope or in one of our camps.”
Greenway recalled an instance while he was working at a remote mine when there was an outbreak of the violent gastrointestinal illness norovirus. Out of 160 workers at the mine, all but five got sick, he said.
According to Kolean, education is the best form of prevention. His health, safety and environment, or HSE, team is trained to spot and handle illness in event the most minor form, he said. Crew leaders inquire about the health of their teams every morning before the day’s work is every discussed. Kolean said any concerns are immediately passed on to the HSE director on site.
Workers with a slight cough, for example, are sent to the camp clinic for treatment, which, while it may only be cough drops, is often enough to keep someone’s health from deteriorating. If someone tests positive for strep throat or the flu they are quarantined in their room until they can be flown home. Ill workers at a Nordic-Calista camp flying home from the Slope must wear a surgical mask on site until they land, Kolean said.
“You have to be fit for duty and it doesn’t matter if it’s occupational or personal, it has the same effect on your work and your crew,” he said.
When illness is not an issue, standard operating procedure at Point Thomson and other Slope work sites prohibits cell phones outside of the camp buildings — absolutely anywhere.
“It’s not so much that you’re trying to restrict communication,” Kolean said. “It’s just that when you’re out there on the job that cell phone is a dangerous tool.”
Even when in camp, someone talking on a phone while walking down a hall will likely be reminded that they are walking distracted, he noted.
ExxonMobil Pipeline and Infrastructure Manager Sofia Wong said the company emphasizes simple, firm, and positive support at all its work sites.
“People are more likely to change their behavior if you reinforce it in a positive way,” she said.
ExxonMobil has integrated technology into its safety program. Every hard hat in use at Point Thomson is outfitted with four RFID strips, or radio frequency identification. The paper-thin metal transmitters are adhered to the underside of the hard hat and relay a signal to sensors installed in every piece of heavy equipment on site.
If a worker is too close to operating equipment the in-cab sensor begins to beep and notify the operator of a potential danger.
ExxonMobil’s Rivera said the RFID equipment was installed last November and Point Thomson is one of the only sites on the Slope where it is currently being used.
“The bottom line is that we’re flying people up there and spending a lot of money and paying them well to make sure they can safely and efficiently do their work,” Kolean said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.