By Geoffrey Cann
It looks like we’re all confined to quarters until further notice. But that doesn’t mean industry comes to a halt. Digital tools can help keep business moving.
This bitch of a bug infects its human hosts via human-to-human transmission through aerosols like sneezing, coughing, and sharing air, with the virus gaining access via the mouth, nose and eyes. The long incubation period means the undetected infected widely transmit the virus to the unsuspecting susceptible. Worse, the virus survives for different lengths of time on different surfaces (metal, plastic, fibrous including cardboard, paper and cloth), where it awaits for the next victim to pick it up.
There are different strategies for dealing with the virus, but the principal one adopted by most (but not all) OECD economies is social distancing.
At this stage, I’d be pretty surprised if you’re not directly affected because of social distancing measures that have been put in force. Most big cities have enacted pretty strict actions to contain the spread of the virus, including shutting down schools, closing buildings and shopping malls, restricting restaurants, and banning services businesses. You might be shopping while wearing disposable surgical gloves and a respirator mask. I am.
Your company has likely put in place a series of social distancing measures, such as a work from home strategy. This works for those employees who are principally in commercial roles, including finance, procurement, trading, HR, legal, administration, IT and other similar service jobs. Your building might be closed, or operating in a split shift (half of your employees are working from home, the other half are more widely spread out in the office setting).
But not everyone in oil and gas can simply elect to self isolate. Field assets need continuous human supervision. Broken equipment cannot just repair itself. Control rooms are confining spaces forcing operators to work in close quarters. Off shore platforms, where space is at a premium and off-shift accommodations are shared hot bunks, cannot easily meet social distancing targets.
New build, or greenfield, assets under construction are also a challenge. Oil and gas is often located in remote settings and serviced via work camps (Fort McMurray area has some 32,000 workers flying in and out. Western Australia’s mining industry is even more dependent on a travelling workforce). Asset construction planning likely hasn’t taken into account CDC’s recommendation that everyone maintain a 2 meter gap between each other.
These blunt force measures are necessary because of how we have designed our businesses, but also how our healthcare system works, how our institutional mechanisms have evolved to implement urgent change, and how we view privacy.
But there are other more surgical strategies possible in response to a pandemic. I’m watching how South Korea is responding as an example, and so far, their outcomes (no widespread social quarantine and low death rate) are defying gravity.
Hand-to-hand Virus Combat
In the heat of the moment, the normal human response to a novel threat is to apply the training one has learned for familiar threats and to rely on proven tools and tactics readily at hand.
This doesn’t always work out. The Roman Empire fell because a new threat, the lightly armoured mounted archer, was superior in combat against Rome’s slow heavily armed foot soldiers. The Romans unwisely clung to their training and success formula but eventually fell after 300 years. In the Second World War, the German tactic of lightening war, or blitzkreig, swept through country after country for 2 years, until it met its match in the battle for Stalingrad. The desperation of the Russian people compelled them to try something new — street by street fighting, with constantly moving small bands of fighters, able to out manoeuvre the mechanised German tank forces, and attacks on the supply line bringing fuel to the front.
This phenomenon, the initial application of yesterday’s solutions and tools to unfamiliar problems to see if they work, is what many western societies and businesses are applying to the pandemic. It will be far more costly than it needs to be, but we have no choice. There’s little value to be gained trying to fix the wiring when the house is on fire. Put the fire out.
Here’s the roster of some of the immediate actions that are available for an oil and gas business:
- Making hand washing and cleansing even easier
- Spacing out employees in office settings using split shifts or hastily rented facilities
- Instituting a work at home option for those that can work from home
- Offering masks and gloves to employees whose roles cannot meet social distance criteria
- Enhancing cleaning and hygiene actions for shared facilities (washrooms, hand rails, door knobs, tools, equipment, desks, chairs, keyboards, mice, phones, control panels, pay stations, pump handles)
- Changing on-site people movements on shift changes (less packed buses)
- Putting up temporary vapour barriers between work stations in a control room
- Upping the performance of ventilation equipment to cleanse the air more aggressively
- Adjusting work schedules to reduce surges (at start and stop, lunch, and breaks)
- Spacing out queued workers entering and exiting facilities
- Banning any gatherings of some arbitrary number of people
- Quarantining anyone showing signs of infection
- Quarantining anyone who has travelled recently from an infected location
- Including virus testing as a mandatory work place requirement, particularly for the field
- Placing some employees on furlough (paid or unpaid) to reduce the number of workers
- Queueing customers entering any facilities
- Shutting some facilities down entirely to wait things out
All of these tactics will help, but none fundamentally challenge the underlying business models and structures for the oil and gas business. Such tactics are a costly add-on and a drag on productivity on the existing business. If a vaccination cannot be readily concocted, these tactics will be in place for a long time, and the degradation of business performance will become permanent.
As in the fight against climate change, the oil and gas industry has access to a number of digital weapons for helping deal with the pandemic. The brave will figure out how to leverage the spare capacity made available because of COVID-19 to reconfigure the business around these digital innovations.
Video conferencing tools like Zoom and Hangouts are going to get a big lift from all the home-based workers in oil and gas, but that should be just the start. Other collaboration tools — joint document editing (Google Docs), shared work tasks (Trello), team communications (Slack) — might start to be deployed more enthusiastically in the supply chain, with contractors and suppliers.
Many employees have resisted the use of wearable technology because of the perceived invasion of privacy. The one convincing use of wearable technology is in personal safety — employees find it hard to object to wearable gear that can detect a heart attack or a fall. They would likely find wearable technology that can alert them quickly to the potential exposure to COVID-19 to be equally appealing.
Instead of having workers travelling to site to check in on equipment, operators could deploy cameras equipped with visual analytics to keep eyes on assets. Visual analytics is part of the digital field that includes facial recognition technology, but is rapidly being applied to a huge range of industrial uses. One large construction company uses its overnight security cameras to also identify the arrival of parts, equipment and cement to its construction sites, and to alert crews. Used in this way, cameras reduce carbon, lower cost, and keep employees out of hospital.
Instead of having field workers clustered around SCADA system control panels in close quarters, operators could deploy artificial intelligence edge controllers from Ambyint to manage and optimise production. Letting a machine supervise the assets can potentially move employees out of the control room and create space for social distancing. Solutions such as Kelvin can optimise entire producing fields, which will also reduce the potential for virus transmission in control rooms.
There isn’t a more compelling case for drone technology than a virus outbreak. By definition, the use of a drone to replace a person in a supply chain, a warehouse, or a delivery role means fewer opportunities for person to person interaction.
Many work processes in oil and gas depend on one person doing a task and handing their resulting output off to another person. If that work is in paper or plastic format, it can also harbour the virus. Many of those processes exist because of the lack of trust between parties in the process, and now those parties have another reason to be distrustful. Does the field ticket, contract, certificate, paperwork, or license (anything that is handed from person to person in a process), possibly hold the virus too? Blockchain has yet another compelling business reason for deployment by reducing virus transmission.
The longer this pandemic drags on, the more costly these manual social distancing measures will become, and the more compelling it will be to reconfigure work to permanently solve for social distancing.
Check out my book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.
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