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Where It All Went So Wrong


By Lee Wilson

I recently returned from inspecting a high-profile gas plant being developed by a major engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company for a big oil and gas concern.

The total development cost of this project is on the order of £3.5 billion pounds (nearly $5.5 billion USD)—a pretty significant sum, by anyone’s standard.

The project, which shall remain unidentified here, is well behind schedule.

Wikiemedia Commons / Between My Ken

We have decades of global experience building gas plants. So why are such projects so often late, over budget, and riddled with problems?

It is also, from a protective coatings perspective, a disaster in the making.

Pre-Opening Failures

The problem?

With apparently all the money in the world at management’s disposal, there are clearly evident premature coating failures, visible coating breakdown, and widespread corrosion throughout the plant.

And this is before the plant has even been commissioned.

Huge surface areas of tanks were internally coated in the wrong systems, requiring major rework. Areas were left uncoated throughout the modules and pipe racks.

However, most of this work has been signed off (by the oil company’s inspectors) and the access for the works dismantled.

Making It Right

These are just some of the issues I recorded. And, in all fairness, the plant is not yet complete.

I am sure the powers that be who allowed these problems in the first place will rectify their mistakes.

© / HHakim

Demand is growing for skilled workers to meet the maintenance needs of aging oil and gas facilities, as well as new construction. How will we fill it?

Or will they?

Billions of pounds have already been spent. And instead of investing in doing it right the first time, the touch-up stage is turning into a major construction project.

Add in the fact that the modules and racks were designed and constructed in numerous locations across the globe, so tracing and accounting for these components is nearly impossible.

No wonder the common refrain is, “It’s not my problem. It wasn’t built here.”

Experience Needed

I have to wonder why in 2014, when we have so much global experience in building gas plants, we continue to see projects run way over budget, way past deadline—and still with so many problems along the way.

© / Mordolff

ICorr, SSPC and other organizations are ramping up painter training. But the problems extend far above the applicator and blaster level.

This project, and many like it around the world, are simply hemorrhaging cash. Why?

The answer: We still have too many of the wrong people in too many of the wrong places.

Unfortunately, this problem is neither new nor limited to one region of the globe. In 2010, I wrote an article in a European journal about the experience and skills of industry personnel.

“How will the industry cope with the demand for skilled and experienced paint applicators?” I asked then.

In 2014, the answer remains, “Not very well.”

Not-Just-Any Help Wanted

Clearly, the industry has a huge demand for experienced coating personnel.

This is predominantly due to an aging offshore industry that needs essential fabric maintenance. Additional demand comes from new construction projects, due to the never-ending search for and refinery of black gold.  

Honolulu Community College

Apprenticeship programs are becoming harder to find. Honolulu Community College partners with the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in training apprentices to become journeyman mechanics.

However, just because our needs are pressing should not mean that we employ butchers, bakers and candlestick makers to plan, design, engineer, manage and execute our coating projects.

Yet, believe me, that is what is happening.

Blaming the Painter

The lack of experience and skill within the industry is well known and well documented. The UK’s Institute of Corrosion (ICorr), SSPC and other bodies and societies have tried to fill the gap with training programs for painters (ICATS and Train the Painter).

However, it is not just at the surface preparation and application levels where the problem lies.

It’s easy to blame the painter and the contractor. But what about the manager, the engineer, the specification author, the guy who approved the specification, and so on? 

Whither the Apprentice?

Gone are the days of the apprentice schemes of Europe’s famous shipyards, where the vast majority of surface-preparation experts and coating applicators were trained in the arts of blasting and painting.

This experience was gained in Europe due to the demand for new-build platform and vessel construction during the 1970s, 1980s and early ’90s.

Glasgow Shipyard - 1944
UK Ministry of Information

Workers on lunch break stream through the gates of a Glasgow shipyard in 1944. When the UK's great shipyards folded, they took incalculable experience with them.

Sadly, these yards no longer exist—particularly in the UK, where the storied shipyards of North East England have turned into upmarket housing developments where a painter would probably not be welcome.

It’s not only the yards that died. It’s also the experience required to execute large-scale projects.

The Big Picture

Projects need to be planned correctly, from front-end engineering design (FEED) all the way through engineering, procurement, construction and installation (EPCI).

Projects also need to be managed by experienced, competent and capable individuals. Having a NACE Level 3 paint inspection ticket does not necessarily mean that that you are an engineer or manager capable of running multibillion-dollar projects.

There are solutions. They start with looking at the bigger picture.

If a construction manager would decline (or be forbidden) to hire his nephew (who really is a big-box store supervisor) as painting foreman on a billion-pound painting contract, then things like this might not happen.

That’s just one issue, of course. There are others, but those are for another blog.

Meanwhile, I wish all the guys at that gas plant the very best.


Lee Wilson

Lee Wilson, CEng, FICorr, is a NACE Level 3-certified CIP Instructor, NACE Corrosion Specialist, NACE Protective Coating Specialist and Senior Corrosion Technologist, as well as an ICorr Level 3 Painting Inspector and Level 2 Insulation Inspector. The author of the best-selling Paint Inspector’s Field Guide, Lee was named one of JPCL Top Thinkers: The Clive Hare Honors in 2012. Contact Lee.



Tagged categories: EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Engineers; Inspection; Institute of Corrosion (ICorr); Lee Wilson, CEng, MICorr; NACE; North America; Quality Control; Quality control; SSPC; Abrasive blasting; Asia Pacific; Latin America; Oil and Gas; Painters; Worker training

Comment from Gerry Duggan, (12/10/2014, 4:15 AM)

Could not agree more.

Comment from Simon Hope, (12/10/2014, 11:12 AM)

Lee, this particular project is looking to become a total disaster. As you rightly say the problems do not particularly lie with the work force, many of who really shouldn't be in the positions they are in, but the management of the clients and contractors who seem in all honesty to be way out of their competence and comfort depths. Until capable personnel are put in place rather than body shopping for bums on seats at all levels this will continue t oget worse rather than improve.....Butchers.....bakers....Candlestick makers.... What chance does the construction industry have?

Comment from Joseph Brandon, (12/12/2014, 3:46 PM)

Lee, It appears that the owner established a very poor management system for this project, and the EPC is taking advantage of it. There is a truism that applies to this situation, and that is "the owner gets what the owner accepts." We need to keep in mind that it is the owner that establishes all parameters of the project, and pays the bills. Those parameters, especially when coupled with a poor contract management system, can produce more incentives to poor performance than one can count. Look at the incentive structure of any project, or portion of a project, and many pieces of the performance puzzle will fall into place. I'm willing to bet that coating failures are but one small part of the failures that can/will be found on this project.

Comment from Gene Andersen, (12/25/2014, 11:08 PM)

Excellent article and great remarks we can all associate with. I'm not sure that I agree on our lack of experienced workers and the relationship to shipbuilding. It is of course true that our feed stock for structural painters was the shipyards - however I believe much of the workforce that developed from that was the "blow and go" guys - pre mid 80's. In my career of now 40 years in the paint business I have found that the advances in coating of bridges - in every facet both shop and field in the USA including training, certification, specification, inspection, safety, environmental, et al are so profound that we forget how far we have come. For the past 3 years I have been working in Japan on Navy projects with Japanese contractors. Japan is certainly no third world country and interestingly I ride my bike through one of their major shipyards everyday to get to work - Japan is leaps and bounds behind us almost 38 of my 40 years. We sometimes think that where we are is a natural progression - but I believe that the DOT's and the SSPC have brought the bridge coating industry from a point where the painter was sort of the bottom of the food chain on the project to the place where we set the bar for quality on the project and we continue to improve. As an aside - I use the youtube video from Boeing on how they paint planes to help show painters proper technique for perpindicular and no arc. I tell them if they don't improve that machine is going to be doing the job. Much appreciated

Comment from Gene Andersen, (12/26/2014, 1:53 AM)

I reread this article again. Great article. In 40 years I have only been with one firm that ever did a debriefing after a project (what went good, what went bad, what did we learn?) and I been on projects this large and larger. The attitude always seems to be when you advise a debriefing, "what good will it do now" Well - we are going to be doing the same thing someplace else tomorrow - and if we don't change - we will get the same results. I have yet to convince anyone yet on the value of a debriefing though.

Comment from Alan Nesbitt, (1/9/2015, 2:04 AM)

Hi Lee, as usual you are 100% right sadly Paint preparation and application is still seen as a necessary evil and not afforded the time and respect deserved.

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