In every aspect of the construction and use of offshore facilities there are strict safety requirements that must be met, and these are particularly strict in the area of lifting operations. Behind the lifting procedures themselves lies a complex chain of logistics and planning to bring the right equipment together, and on top of this there are many unpredictable factors that must be addressed with a combination of wisdom and best practice.

A successful lifting operation must be planned in great detail, but will sometimes require judgment calls that are best made based on the instincts of those in charge, honed by their previous experience working in unpredictable conditions.

"The OML58 gas treatment plant is being upgraded to increase gas production to 15.6 million cubic metres a day."

"The main risk, because all of the relevant safety precautions are in place with the equipment, is from the weather," says John Lawrence, director of UK-based Global Rigging and Lifting Services. "But this is not difficult to plan for. We require a 12 or 24 hour window – depending on the equipment being lifted – and we get a five-day forecast; then we make a real-time assessment by looking around to see if there are any squalls on the horizon, for example. A lot of it comes down to experience."

Heavy-lifting experience

Lawrence has for many years worked on different types of rigging and lifting projects around the world, from planning to execution. His heavy-lifting experience includes loads with an in-air weight of 2,110mt, and offshore lifting jobs have seen him handle loads up to 6,000mt. His offshore work has included FPSO topside installations, hook-ups, float overs, mooring systems and decommissioning, as well as one-off specialist lifts.

At present, he has the role of competent person lifting operations (CPLO) for Total E&P Nigeria, controlling all contractors’ rigging and lifting operations for the OML 58 Upgrade Project, based onshore in the Niger Delta. The project’s gas treatment plant, which has been on-stream since December 1999, is being upgraded to increase gas production to 15.6 million cubic metres a day and oil/condensate output to 140,000 barrels a day (bpd).

"Experience enables a lifting supervisor to turn best practices into instincts that can be trusted."

Lawrence is also employed as a site lifting specialist for Total E&P Nigeria, which has numerous ongoing projects, including the second phase of the Ofon offshore field development. Construction and installation contracts were recently awarded for this development, which lies 65km from the Nigerian coast in 40m of water. Phase 2 of its development is set to unlock undeveloped reserves that will increase the field’s production to 90,000bpd.

Risks posed by offshore environments

Such appointments come as a result of the need for highly experienced people across the construction phase of any major project, from the lifting superintendent to the bargemaster. Filling these kinds of positions with people who can make sound judgment calls in complex offshore environments with potential safety risks could make all the difference to the success of a heavy lift.

"Due to the locations and the unpredictability of the weather, I have come across odd times where the forecast looks good, sea state is calm and everything is in place, so we start the lift, slew it into position ready for securing – and then 30 minutes before the equipment is secured then the wind picks up," says Lawrence. "But then you are committed, so you carry on. Planning is vital, but so is having the experience to know when you are in this situation and what the right course of action is."

Honing instincts with lifting experience

Experience enables a lifting supervisor to turn best practices into instincts that can be trusted. These come from the months and years spent on the job, but can also be passed down by working with seasoned professionals.

"There are many best practices that can be learnt – a lot of things that you pick up from the older guys as you progress in your career – that you are not taught in college," says Lawrence. "It is the hands-on experience that really counts. For instance, one thing that we proved, and that not many lifting supervisors will understand, is that if a crawler crane is travelling with the load then an additional 15% of the load factor is going through the lifting equipment. We tested that in Saudi Arabia with load cells. With experience, you learn to take that kind of safety factor into account when planning the lifts."

"Also, if you have 500t to lift, you wouldn’t plan to use a 500t crane, you use cranes with more capacity. Usually, you would never use anything to its maximum capacity. But then it does always depend on availability of suitable equipment and factors like the environment in which you are working and the budget. In some cases, you might need to use a crane to 99.9% of its capacity, but this would need thorough planning and checking so as not to overload the equipment," he adds.

E&P in Nigeria

Lawrence’s own experience from years in the job has come into its own during his recent work in Nigeria, where in total he is coordinating six projects for Total – three onshore and three offshore. The scale and complexity of Total’s E&P activities in Nigeria, where it has been active for 50 years and currently produces around 290,000bpd of oil equivalent, mean that it requires contractors with experience in challenging offshore environments.

One of the company’s main areas of development is in deepwater operations, such as the established Akpo field in OML 130, and the ongoing preparation of the Egina field. The company, which also operates block OML 138, recently announced the commencement of production in the offshore Usan field, its second-deepest offshore development in Nigeria. The field lies around 100km from the coast in water depths of 750-850m and uses a spread-moored floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel that can process 180,000bpd.

"An important skill is the ability to assess the capabilities of contractors and workers."

Alongside such offshore projects there is significant onshore production from OML 58, where the principal assets are the Obagi oil field and the Ibewa natural gas field. One of the significant features of such projects is the heavy involvement of local manpower. Usan, for instance, has what Total describes as ‘an unprecedented level of Nigerian local content’, with over 500,000 engineering man-hours and 14 million construction and installation man-hours performed in Nigeria. The construction of the FPSO, for instance, included an offshore integration process for 3,500t of locally fabricated structures.

Such activities required large-scale training and capacity building programmes aimed at raising the skill level among the local workforce, which benefits not only current projects, but also future developments.

Local contractors, European standards

It is almost inevitable that complex projects in such an environment will throw up challenges that demand a wise head containing lessons learnt at the coalface. Among the most important of these skills is the ability to assess the capabilities of contractors and workers. This stems partly from an understanding of the requirements of a job and partly from a thorough knowledge of the standards that apply in such operations.

The right skill level is key to the success of a project, as is knowing what training is required before a job begins.

"The biggest issue is with competency levels and training, which are not on a par with European standards," remarks Lawrence. "Total is a European company and works to European procedures. Local contractors can get the necessary certificates, which you cannot reject, but you are not necessarily seeing the originals."

"You only find out if they are riggers or not when the job starts. You have to do in-house training or sometimes just show them how to do it. We do training for Total staff and they become our eyes and ears, and are able to make the call to stop a job if there are any problems. We have had a few instances of that and sometimes for silly things," he adds.

"You need to include a margin for unforeseeable downtime due to weather or logistical problems, but you can’t beat experience and training."

The question Lawrence raises is not whether local workers are capable of doing the job, but whether it is clear at the outset what training is required to bring individual riggers up to standard. Among the most important advice he would give to anyone running a major project is to take a thorough look at the capabilities of the workforce at the outset. Beyond that, Lawrence’s advice is to ensure that the preparation for any major lifting projects incorporates enough flexibility to account for factors that cannot be predicted or controlled.

"You need to include a margin for unforeseeable downtime due to weather or logistical problems, but you can’t beat experience and training, even though training changes every year," he says.

As Lawrence notes, there is constant evolution of training, industry standards and technology. The capacity and design of offshore cranes, for instance, is in flux. One example is the 1,500t-capacity Liebherr offshore heavy lifter, the first to be built with an ‘around the leg’ design.
For lifting experts, such developments mean a constant effort is required to keep up-to-date. However, first-hand experience of major lifting jobs is still the best foundation.