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No Room for Painters


By Lee Wilson

Way back in June 2011, I wrote an article that was published in a European coatings journal (PCE). In it I expressed my concerns about the health and safety of offshore workers due to oil and gas leaks caused by corrosion.

At that time, the U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (equivalent to OSHA in the U.S.) were seen to be taking a stronger stance on the significant corrosion issues which the offshore oil and industry was—and is still—facing.

© / syahrel

There are well-documented cases of serious injuries and fatalities in the offshore sectors that can be attributed directly to corrosion.

So, how far have we come since the original article? In 2015 are we now in a safer position with a reduction in leaks and structural failure caused by corrosion?

I have to say I am afraid we are not.

In the News

Back on the Nov. 5, 2014, STV, Scottish television, reported that a corroded pipe on a North Sea platform that caused a potentially explosive leak was flagged in an inspection as early as 2009.

In the same STV report, HSE inspectors said: “You have not taken appropriate measures to prevent fire and explosion in your pipework inspection activities, which are intended to prevent the uncontrolled release of flammable substances because of external corrosion.”

The U.K.’s Daily Telegraph reported on April 29, 2013, that a "substantial" leak of about 125 barrels of oil and 1,600kg of gas that occurred on a platform in the Norwegian North Sea in September 2012 was caused by corrosion to bolts on a crucial valve.

The Petroleum Safety Authority Norway (PSA) said "the incident had the potential to become a major accident, with the risk that a number of lives might have been lost and substantial material damage caused."

On Nov. 16, 2012, it was reported that Statoil had shut down production on its Troll C platform in the Norwegian North Sea after an inspection identified damage to a pipe connected to the oil export system.

What Does It Mean?

We have to face facts the U.K. offshore oil and gas industry is now in a position where many of its North Sea platforms have been producing and servicing our needs for 25 to 30-plus years, which in many cases is well beyond the intended life spans of many of the assets. This in itself creates an abundance of challenges

You must also take into consideration the severity of the corrosion environment in which these platforms are situated: C5M in accordance with ISO 12944 in most cases.

© / nightman1965

Consider the extent of atmospheric and galvanic corrosion degradation and deterioration which is clearly evident and significant on a number of North Sea offshore platforms.

The HSE offshore division actively urged operators and owners to develop external corrosion management systems (ECM) and subsequent management procedures in order to reduce the risk of safety hazards due to platform and system degradation.

Despite this stance, in 2015 we are still seeing prohibition notices served to oil and gas majors. We simply have to look at the facts: the extended life spans of these platforms, coupled with exposure to high corrosive elements and years of neglect through a general lack of risk based inspection (RBI) and a general lack of fabric maintenance for external corrosion, has ultimately led to a number of North Sea assets falling into a serious—and potentially fatal—state of disrepair.

Studies as early as the late 1980s and 1990s have supported the need for best practice corrosion risk and integrity management. This is not an illusion! There are well-documented cases of serious injuries and fatalities in the offshore sectors that can be attributed directly to corrosion.

As previously stated, this is primarily due to neglect of regular fabric maintenance, full coating refurbishments, and general corrosion and mitigation, which has gone unchecked for years.  

With this said, it is clear to see the reasons for the HSE’s strong stance regarding external corrosion management systems.

Too Little Too Late?

However, I asked way back in 2011 whether ECM systems are a case of too little too late.

Some of the major owners and operators have begun to implement ECM systems, but are these patch painting programmes sufficient once a platform has passed that point of no return? Painting or replacing corroded steel work is not really feasible.

Now take into consideration the extent of atmospheric and galvanic corrosion degradation and deterioration, which is clearly evident and significant on a number of North Sea offshore platforms. This is something I have personally witnessed and is well documented and reported. Consider the huge concerns associated with CUI, or Corrosion Under Insulation, and the ever-present threat of hydrocarbon gas leaks from corroded pipe work, valves and pressure vessels.

One would assume that owners and operators alike would and should be looking at incorporating long-term corrosion protection solutions and routine fabric maintenance campaigns as opposed to smoke-and-mirror wallpapering exercises that jeopardize platform integrity and the safety of offshore personnel.  

It appears that platform owners and operators fail to realise that there is a level of deterioration/degradation of corrosion breakdown that can be classed as a point of no return. This point of no return exists in the sense that, from this moment onward, the maximum effort that can be achieved from a safe, structural, logistical and financial perspective is no longer efficient to control the corrosion on the platform and only delays the inevitable.

This is where, in my opinion, a lot of the majors are failing in regard to maintenance of their offshore assets.

Simply put, once a platform has reached a level of serious deterioration, a full fabric maintenance campaign engineered to completely protect the asset and safeguard personnel should be implemented. Instead we often see patch painting programmes (allegedly risk-based) which are, in effect, an expensive diversion from really tackling the corrosion problems, while appearing to be doing something for the benefit of the U.K.’s HSE.

Trends in ECM

Taking all of the above into consideration, I would have to say that I personally disagree with a lot of the current trends for External Corrosion Management adopted by some owners and operators. The simple fact is that under some of these management systems, whichever way you look at it, the platform is still losing its integrity—and unfortunately, as good as it may look on paper, is still terminally corroding.

We have to remember that, during refurbishment under risk-based ECM systems, not all areas are being fully repaired and areas of the platform are still being allowed to corrode.

I understand that the focus of these systems are based upon critical areas, and, although you may have two adjacent corroded areas, one area may not be treated by the contractor during the painting repair process. Most ECM systems perform work based on loss of wall thickness or the Ri Scale. The state of deterioration is often determined by a surveyor under an RBI and implemented into the ECM system.

Skirting the Issue

This in my opinion is where it is all going wrong. Are we not skirting around the issue of serious corrosion on oil and gas installations?

Companies often justify the situation with the claim that the plant, fabric and systems were non-safety-critical, and thus a lower level of integrity was justified. This claim disguises a poor understanding across the industry of potential interaction of degraded non-safety-critical plant and utility system with safety-critical elements in the event of a major accident.

© / mikeuk

ECM systems should be employed at the very beginning of an asset’s lifecycle—not 30 years later when that point of no return has again been reached.

Additionally, as the scale of plant degradation increases, the pressures on resources increases, creating tensions between the need to remedy basic fabric problems and carry out repairs critical to integrity.

My point is: why pretend to manage the deterioration of a platform—or any other structure for that matter—once a critical level of corrosion deterioration has been reached? You can effectively eliminate the problem by introducing a systematic and orchestrated approach using fabric maintenance campaigns to completely eradicate the immediate threat of corrosion. 

We should not forget we are playing with the lives of thousands of offshore personnel. 

Lifecycle Management

Don’t get me wrong; there is, of course, a place for ECM systems. Once successfully implemented and delivered, they can be essential for managing asset integrity. However, these systems should be employed at the very beginning of an asset’s lifecycle—not, I must stress, 30 years later when that point of no return has again been reached.

The HSE seems to agree with this school of thought. A statement on the HSE website from the HSE Offshore Division states: “Offshore Division Seeks a lifecycle management approach which starts with the initial selection of materials and follows through the assets lifecycle with effective regular, inspection, maintenance, repair and replacement.”

This is an excellent concept for newbuild platforms and installations, ensuring prolonged asset integrity throughout a platform’s lifecycle. However, ECM systems are simply not enough when dealing with severely corroded and aged platforms.

What we have to remember is that all coating systems fail; this is nothing new and we all recognise this as a given, so it shouldn’t come as a major surprise to owners and operators when their protective coating systems begin to deteriorate.

Lifecycle corrosion management does work if incorporated at the beginning of an asset’s lifespan; however, in my opinion, it is simply not enough when faced with the huge task of confronting the North Seas offshore sector’s serious and potentially deadly corrosion problems.

I would say to owners and operators that, where external management systems have been neglected, ignored and are no longer feasible or possible, then, if common sense were to prevail, there is little option other than a full-site upgrade and complete fabric maintenance campaign.

And So It Goes

The problem still continues, as on Jan. 29 STV news again reported that a pipe leaked on a North Sea oil vessel after its owner failed to repair badly corroded “safety-critical” equipment for five years.

The issue on the floating production vessel was first identified by safety inspectors in September 2009, and the company planned to complete the repairs in may after HSE issued an improvement notice. Note: it took five years and an improvement notice to rectify this known issue.

It is believed that ECM systems will save money, with some providers boasting that they can safely manage corrosion rates until decommissioning of the structure. Perhaps this is true; however, platforms are still seriously corroding and deteriorating and we have to ask how long operators intend to keep these platforms in production. The answer to this question is rather simple: as long as the black gold is flowing, then the platforms will remain in situ—and as long as there are operation needs there is not room for a painting team!

No Room for Painters

How is it that the industry finds itself in a position where more than 90 percent of platforms inspected by the HSE’s offshore division are considered to be in need of improvement? And why is the HSE taking such a strong stance upon external corrosion?

If something is corroded it will continue to corrode until some form of adequate corrosion control is put into place. This is a pretty simple concept.

© / Sergei Dubrovskii

I am pretty sure that constant maintenance ultimately pays for itself in the long run.

If there is no one on the platform to carry this control out, then the issue will continue.

Operators claim that fabric maintenance campaigns and constant painting activities are too expensive and take up valuable operational bed space. However, I would ask what the cost of a shutdown on a North Sea Platform is and how many shutdowns can be attributed to corrosion-related issues?

I am pretty sure that constant maintenance ultimately pays for itself in the long run.

‘Raise the Game on Safety’

Way back in August 2010 the North Sea oil and gas industry was told to “raise the game on safety” after a huge jump in gas releases as reported by The Scotsman.

On Aug. 23, 2010, the paper reported: “Britain’s oil and gas industry was today ordered to up its game on safety following revelations that the potentially catastrophic gas releases on offshore installations has risen by more than a third in the past year. The number of major and significant release of hydrocarbons (gas and oil) from North Sea platforms operating in British waters had increased from 61 to 85 in the space of 12 months taking the total to its highest level since 2003.”

There was a reduction in HCR (Hydrocarbon Release); however, Susan Mackenzie, director of HSE's Hazardous Installations Directorate, stated in June 2014:

"It is clear that while HCR performance has improved significantly over the past decade, the rise in HCRs in 2013/2014, following a reduction in the previous four years, is concerning. As we know, HCRs are a primary precursor to fire and explosion offshore. 

"Late last year I asked the offshore industry to review its current approach to the prevention of HCRs in the light of this worrying reversal of the industry's improving record."

Susan continued by saying: "While it is encouraging to see a reduction in significant and major HCRs, the overall increase in HCRs remains a serious concern. Industry needs to address these increases and investigate common causes or underlying issues. I'd hope these latest statistics act as a wake-up call to industry and I expect to see a reduction in the coming year."

To put it simply fabric maintenance is very poor on many platforms, showing inadequate long-term planning by the operators for the lifetime of installations, a lack of regard for the working environment of offshore workers and the risks to the individual of injury. The poor condition of many platforms has increased the risks of injury to personnel from dropped objects, hand lacerations and falling through gratings.

A Word of Advice

High levels of project work, drilling programmes and ongoing problems related to aging plant reliability have often put severe pressure on bed space.

Painting teams will often be the first to be removed, and it is now unusual to find painters employed full time on many installations.

As a result, painting programmes have diminished or ceased with a corresponding increase in levels of corrosion.

In some cases, painting programmes have not been developed and implemented. The result is a continual increase in inspection and additional corrosion problems, which the industry is struggling to break through.

My advice is simple: maintain your platforms and keep a core crew of surface preparators and coating applicators on board.

Have a planned systematic approach to fabric maintenance with regular surveys and inspections and, when all else fails, when something is broken do the right thing and fix it.

Let’s hope that something is done—and done soon before it’s too late!


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: Corrosion; Health and safety; Offshore

Comment from Dennis Hargrove, (9/14/2015, 9:50 AM)

You stated in your that "all coating systems fail". Coating systems have a life-cycle also and maintenance should implemented accordingly. Not knowing what the material was used for the piping, it is known that will return to it's original state, which is iron oxide. Therefore, coating systems should be included in any corrosion management systems.

Comment from Lee Wilson, (9/14/2015, 1:17 PM)

Hi Dennis you see that's the problem coating systems have a potential life cycle depending upon numerous factors! As we all know once that life cycle is reached the system begins to break down and not in direct proportion. How long is a life cycle ? Its a projected non guaranteed life cycle, failure of the system is inevitable however you look at it and regardless of the material, hence the reason for a planned systematic approach to fabric maintenance which is imperative for any corrosion management system. As I stated there is, of course, a place for ECM systems. Once successfully implemented and delivered, they can be essential for managing asset integrity. However, these systems should be employed at the very beginning of an asset’s lifecycle—not, I must stress, 30 years later when that point of no return has again been reached. I agree entirely maintenance should be implemented accordingly however unfortunately and with great regret that is where the problem arises!

Comment from john schultz, (9/15/2015, 9:28 AM)

The cruise ships has crews that are constantly maintaining the vessel. Thinking of these $billion rigs it seems that there would be no "non-critical" surfaces. Priority scales, without a doubt, but there is nothing on them that wasn't engineered for a purpose. With the apparent profits of the energy companies, coatings would be just a minuscule amount to protect such a high value asset.

Comment from Lee Wilson, (9/17/2015, 5:58 AM)


Comment from M. Halliwell, (9/18/2015, 11:23 AM)

And it is not just off-shore stuff suffering this neglect these days. I know of several plants / refineries that have curtailed their maintenance activities with the drop in oil. The end result is the same...neglect the asset and it degrades to the point of failure (or even total loss). Too bad so many companies have such a poor view of maintenance (coatings included)that it is the first thing on the block when profits shrink.

Comment from Chuck Pease, (9/20/2015, 11:11 AM)

Not just a offshore problem. Americas infrastructure is a most valuable asset and we/they have allowed it to rot out "literally" from under our feet.

Comment from Hugh Cummings , (10/9/2015, 4:31 PM)

Very interesting as usual Lee, the U.K. Platforms are now at a stage where they are literally falling into the sea. As you say they won't pay for a systemised FM programme and yet they are now at a stage where they are having to erect large scaffold dance floors, at considerable expense, in order to combat the P.D.O issue(potential dropped objects) items such as pipe supports, structural beam supports etc from falling to deck due to corrosion. Unfortunately I don't see an end in sight as they continue to "deman" the FM personnel if bed space is required

Comment from Lee Wilson, (10/11/2015, 9:09 AM)

Hi Hugh I trust all is well! You are well aware from first hand experience the predicament the industry is now in unfortunately it is only going to get worse with the drop in the price of oil as some of the oil majors are now cancelling planned Fabric Maintenance works / campaigns until the barrel price rises (obviously cash strapped ?) As I stated: In 2015 we are still seeing prohibition notices served to oil and gas majors. We simply have to look at the facts: The extended life spans of these platforms, coupled with exposure to high corrosive elements C5M and years of neglect through a general lack of risk based inspection (RBI) and a general lack of fabric maintenance for external corrosion, has ultimately led to a number of North Sea assets falling into a serious—and potentially fatal—state of disrepair. I agree there doesn't seem to be an end in site until of course its too late.

Comment from simon daly, (12/8/2016, 11:30 AM)

I disagree with the statement that all coating systems fail. It might be better expressed that all coatings systems degrade to some degree and that all coated items have the potential for "failure". Whether the degradation is sufficient to constitute a "failure" and whether it is faster than the expected degradation rate are also relevant questions and are of course this is a complex combination of many factors not least the suitability of the item to be coated, the prevalent macro and microclimates on the facility and the quality of the coating installation. One thing I think is very appropriate, however is that if you don't monitor and arrest any potential degradation in its early stages then the ultimate cost of rectification will be many times higher.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (12/9/2016, 8:25 AM)

Effectively all commonly used coatings fail. Eventually, and with "fail" meaning they degrade to the point where they no longer perform their original function. Some in protected areas have lasted largely intact for around 40,000 years - but they're showing degradation. Hopefully they don't fail prematurely - but eventually the coating degrades.

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