In the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the risks of working in what was already one of the most hostile environments on Earth. But, with the first anniversary of the outbreak not long in our collective rear-view mirrors, offshore workers in the North Sea are facing a twin threat: emerging new variants of the virus and increasing Covid-fatigue and complacency.
The UK offshore industry has achieved an enviable safety record during the pandemic, due in large measure to the widespread testing of offshore workers before mobilisation. Such pre-mobilisation testing of over 130,000 individuals in the UK has helped to effectively control transmission offshore over the last ten months.
However, we have always recognised that widespread testing, while important, is not a magic bullet and must be combined with other strict precautions. Such concerns have taken on a renewed urgency since the New Year, with a number of cases of Covid-19 being recorded on offshore platforms in January and early-February.
This spike corresponds to the emergence of the new variant viruses – including the Kent, South African and Brazilian strains – associated with increased spread in the community. As a result, we are moving towards a containment phase of the pandemic in the offshore industry, in contrast to a purely preventative phase last year.
This is vital to keep thousands of offshore workers safe and to ensure the security of the UK’s energy supply. The frightening experiences at Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company, where more than 450 workers have died from the virus since last March, brings home to us the importance of these measures to protect our key energy workers.
The latest Scottish and UK Government health campaigns are warning against complacency and ‘twisting the rules’ as the public begins to suffer from so-called Covid-fatigue. The World Health Organisation (WHO) even defines Covid-fatigue clinically as “demotivation to engage in protection behaviours and seek Covid-19-related information, and as complacency, alienation and hopelessness”.
Over a year into the pandemic, such feelings of burnout in the face of continuing restrictions and precautions are natural, but they are also of great concern, given the rise in offshore infections.
However, as an industry, we can minimise the health risks by following five best practice guidelines around testing:
Get tested: That seems like obvious common sense, and currently 90% of UKCS operators do undertake pre-mobilisation testing. However, it has been confirmed that the largest outbreak happened on a platform whose operator did not have a policy of testing workers for Covid-19 before they were transported to the offshore installation. It’s also very important to ensure that team members await the results of their tests before mobilising; there have been cases of workers travelling to heliports before they have received the all-clear.
Understand the limits of testing: While testing is a vital and highly effective contributor to offshore virus protection, it is not fool proof. We have always said that testing must be seen as a key part of a wider risk strategy. The biggest concern is false negative results and this is potentially of even greater significance with the emergence of new strains of the virus that are difficult to detect with Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing. This emphasises the fact that testing cannot be a stand-alone strategy. Indeed, that’s why we carefully monitor all tests to identify and highlight abnormal patterns.
Stay in your bubble: Remember that a negative test is not the same as immunity. There is a great risk of post-test infection if individual workers enter a non-Covid secure environment after testing, but before mobilisation. Returning home or going back to the hotel in the event of delayed flights, for example, opens the individual up to catching a highly opportunistic and infectious virus.
Beware in-transit transmission: Squeeze points, such as heliports, through which many workers pass, can result in virus transmission from handrails, doors and other surfaces. That’s why personal hygiene – handwashing, sanitising, face coverings – and rigorous and regular disinfection/deep cleaning of premises is essential.
Keep vigilant in the offshore environment: The offshore operators really stepped up to the health and safety challenge at the start of the pandemic. Manning levels were cut, same-shift cabin sharing was ended, and social distancing was enforced. However, as resource and work levels recover, it will be more important than ever to maintain rigorous controls, report any symptoms in line with worksite protocols, and avoid complacency.
Sticking rigidly to all those good habits like temperature-checking, testing, washing hands, sanitising, and wearing face coverings as required may be frustrating, but are potentially lifesaving.
The roll-out of the UK’s vaccine programme is greatly encouraging but we must be especially careful not to let our guard down. The industry has done an excellent job of keeping cases and transmission to a minimum. Testing remains vital but it can’t do all the heavy lifting on its own. By staying aware and staying vigilant we can help our key energy workers stay safe offshore.
Ken is clinical director of the TAC Healthcare Group, which is providing Covid testing to the oil and gas industry from its base in Aberdeen and centres throughout the UK.