Offshore health and safety - a very risky business

Health and safety is a vital part of any industry, but particularly for offshore companies. Aranda Rahbarkouhi speaks to a health and safety expert Colin Leyden

Confidence in the oil and gas industry is high for 2014
Health and safety in the offshore oil industry is vitally important

It sometimes takes a crisis to initiate change in industry. But the root cause of any offshore disaster is just the tip of the iceberg, as safety training expert Colin Leyden knows only too well.

Leyden, 45, is driving change in the subsea industry through the eyes and actions of those on the frontline - because they are the people who will avoid another Piper Alpha or Deepwater Horizon.

And in his role as managing director of Falck Safety Services, covering the North East of England and Scotland, Leyden makes sure that no one turns a blind eye to concerns.

Since he joined the company in May this year, he has been committed to reducing dangers, injuries and accidents, as well as driving home the health and safety message to not just his team, but to 260,000 employees working in hostile and difficult working environments worldwide.

“I think there is a general human instinctual obligation to look after ourselves and others. Secondly, from a knock-on effect of poor and unsafe operations there is a massive impact on the economy. It’s been proven many, many times over that a well-trained and safe behavioural organisation is also an efficient and well-performing organisation,” said Leyden.

Few engineers get to train thousands of workers in life-saving scenarios across the world each year. But the safety expert believes that even the best systems can be vulnerable if staff are not a central part of the process. He said: “We train anyone who will set foot on a North Sea oil platform. That’s everyone from the roustabouts to the oil platform managers. We also train the helicopter pilots who fly back and forwards delivering those individuals. We have trained some Armed Forces people and even TV journalists who have to go offshore as part of their work.”

Leyden oversees Falck’s training centres at Aberdeen and Teesside which deliver more than 200 health and safety survival courses. And the company has invested more than £100,000 in its offshore survival facilities in Aberdeen alone. But how does the training work?

“You have mandatory training requirements, that is training needs agreed as a minimum safety standard by operators and oil companies. They are accredited courses that a group of companies agree are the minimum standard for the industry. We apply those courses. They can be anything from one to 15 days. There is a set training plan that you take the delegates through.

Colin Leyden, MD of Falck Safety Services
Colin Leyden, MD of Falck Safety Services

Forget the huge files of theory and specialist websites, Leyden’s approach involves intense simulated exercises with frontline staff and management. It’s certainly no ‘tick in the box’ exercise.

“Some is classroom-based and some would be based in a fixed simulator, it could be in a pool, a dinghy or even a raft. With full survival suits on, we would put the delegates through their paces on exiting a helicopter simulator, climbing into a raft, covering the raft and keeping them safe,” said Leyden.

“There are regular issues with the weather and equipment for heli teams which need to be monitored. These teams have very specific processes they are trained in. We operate training all the way up to management where we simulate very intense and stressful situations. A team will monitor delegates from a control room, and then from that there is a level they must obtain to be deemed as competent by the operators.”

Back in the classroom, he then makes sure that concerns about plant integrity are listened to and that his delegates can raise issues.

He said: “There is dialogue on how the programme went, what that training felt like and what their experiences of it were. Talking it through and having that dialogue with delegates helps the group engage in why safety is so important.”

When change comes, Leyden makes sure there is involvement from front line staff so everyone sees themselves as a key part of the process. He’s a firm believer that local knowledge and skills fix things. It’s not about plugging the gaps.

He said: “We are always looking at ways of improving safety and there are steering groups among all the communities on survival safety. All the training providers meet on a regular basis. Those meetings are about sharing the learning and experiences and then taking that information back to the operators or engineering bodies with recommendations or how we can improve it.”

Leyden thinks that health and safety should become ‘built-in’ within an employee and their company. And although maintenance, engineering, inspection and data management is important - it’s not the whole story. Oil and gas production is a risky business and operations people know it is about assessing and managing risk.

He said: “It is an end-to-end process, listening to delegates and taking learning from a practical experience, but also listening to what the industry needs - because we are all very, very focused on improving its safety.

“Health and safety is becoming more important across all sectors and all industries, but especially the oil and gas and offshore sector where there is an immense focus on support.”

The offshore industry relies on many people doing many things right. Even when all the procedures are followed and everything is signed off, a lot of issues remain. But what is the answer?

He said: “Some companies will have a daily brief, daily news, or will start each meeting with a ‘safety moment’, or risk identification process where every employee has an obligation to identify one risk every day. But safety is behavioural. The more it can become automatic, the fewer issues will occur and our training courses are aimed at keeping it on everyone’s mind.”

Are floating production, storage and offloading systems (FPSOs) changing the face of health and safety? And what advantages do they have over fixed production platforms?

Leyden said: “Whether it’s moving equipment, supplying vessels or fixed rigs, all training activity works on levels. There is general basic offshore safety and survival training and then there may be more specific technical training and heli operation training. The thing that is changing most is the safety infrastructure. The build, the routing through them, their performance. Equipment and technology is now the big driving force on these assets, improving everything.

Health and safety in the offshore industry
Health and safety in the offshore industry

“We are moving into a much more visible, communicative and technically safe environment now. Things that were built 40 years ago clearly have been approved, but if you were starting with a clean sheet of paper today, you’d probably do things differently.

“There are some assets in the North Sea which are way over 25 years old. There has been a lot of investment and maintenance going into those. However, there is already another area of safety and behavioural observation in their decommissioning. We are now looking at what we do with these assets. How do we manage them, how do we take them down and how do we replace them safely?”

The offshore industry relies on many people doing many things right. So would more remote monitoring of oil platforms reduce health and safety risk further?

“I think it’s all down to the level of risk. If an asset can be monitored remotely then it should be done. However if the risk is being automatically monitored from afar and there are human beings on that asset, then in some cases, they are still best-placed to monitor things themselves,” said Leyden.

So what health and safety issues has Leyden faced head-on since he started with Falck?

“Since joining the group, I have talked, heard and experienced all the discussions on strategy provision and I’m proud to say that everything that it says on the tin is what I’ve seen inside the business. We have some very experienced instructors,” said Leyden.

While many employees would shy away from tackling their new boss on health and safety issues, on his first day at work, Leyden was not offended by one co-worker’s advice. He actively encourages a culture of managing unforseen problems.

“On my first day with the company I was reminded by an employee to hold on to a handrail as I was on the stairs. That’s how important we view safety. It’s all about reminding each other in what we do. We are on a mission to prevent accidents in any emergency situation,” said Leyden.

The Falck values are close to his heart too.

He said: “We are helpful, reliable, fast and focused and we are accessible and competent. We know our business. I’ve been having a fun time recently with my team across the UK and we now challenge each other as we walk past in the corridor to remember our values. It’s a good way of keeping things front of mind and reminding each other why we are there.”

Leyden embraces challenges he is faced with. But is there anything he’d like to change?

He said: “It’s daunting in the fact that the safety of individuals is paramount. To be operating and have a responsibility in that area is a big responsibility. The last thing I need is anybody coming to a centre and not leaving 100% ready, or as best as we can possibly get them.

“I think the main thing I’ve tried to change though is the reach of the business. At the moment we are very focused on the oil and gas industry as you would expect. But safety training goes across all industries. For example onshore, offshore and maritime. One of the big things I am looking at is how we extend that reach. My objective is to safely train as many people in as short a time as possible looking at where can we add value. We are a global organisation with more than 100 years’ experience so we have a lot to offer.”

But does Leyden not think that health and safety has gone a bit mad over the past few years?

He said: “When it comes to us ensuring there is a responsibility and a liability on employers to look after individuals at their place of work, and equally having the individuals feel they have a responsibility for their own personal safety, I don’t think anything is going wrong there. It’s very, very important that we take this seriously.

“However, when it comes to preventing kids playing conkers in the school yard, then that is going a bit far! That kind of health and safety is going a bit crazy in my view. It’s like all these things, there is a middle ground.”

Leyden’s sense of conviction says a lot about his personality – he is an engaging and well-informed man who certainly isn’t afraid to fight for his industry. He has even undertaken the safety survival course himself.

Much of his authority in his current role is underpinned by a hugely experienced background. Leyden has held senior roles within major industrial organisations and has headed several within engineering sectors including time as the MD of Norgren - Core UK working on engineering products across multiple sectors. He started out as a graduate electronics and software engineer for Polaroid in Scotland.

And six months into a two-year course, the firm moved him to Boston in the US to work on a robotics project.

He said: “I was very very lucky to get to go to the US, as the project involved building cameras using automated robots. It gave me my first step into the safety world because clearly operating very heavy pieces of equipment had a high safety standard. I’ve been lucky enough to have behavioural safety training applied throughout my career through multiple sectors and multiple countries. You could say it’s in my DNA! It’s been a tough journey with various pots of luck.”

Leyden’s rise to the top wasn’t easy. As the youngest of eight children, his father was an engineer and a Sgt Major in the Army.

He said: “Dad had high expectations. It was 5.30am rise, then whatever job you were going to, it was a case of - get on with it! I had a paper round and worked in an ice-cream van. I then graduated to stacking shelves in the local Safeway store before going to Glasgow Caledonian University.”

One thing Leyden has taken away from his experience in engineering, it’s that discipline always has a massive impact on results.


One North East firm driving home the importance of safety in the workplace is Fabricom Offshore Services, which has offices in Aberdeen, Newcastle and Teesside.

HSEQ manager Mike Fenton of Fabricom, said: “Health, safety and environmental management are an essential part of the way Fabricom conducts its business.”

Fenton explained that Fabricom’s HSE issues are part of every employee’s job.

They include:

  • Monthly safe work groups to identify best practice techniques in HSE management;
  • Safety alerts to inform employees and stakeholders of a specific safety issue that without urgent action could result in a serious or fatal incident;
  • A daily HSE talk in the workplace to raise awareness of an aspect of work and reinforce HSE messages;
  • Risk assessment guidance in all work areas to help with development/maintenance
  • Focus groups to look at organisational and personal health, safety and environmental responsibilities;
  • A quarterly newsletter to keep employees and stakeholders up-to-date on Fabricom’s HSEQ activities;
  • Annual objectives and targets which are reviewed quarterly and used to show achievements;
  • Key performance indicators measured and published monthly to show Fabricom’s performance against agreed HSEQ targets;
  • Quarterly staff development reviews to track employee development opportunities.


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