Let me share with you a personal account of what I experienced while in Germany in March this year. I was on a press trip organised by German E&P major Wintershall to attend their annual press conference at the company’s headquarters in Kassel.
As part of the tour, a day after the media event, journalists gathered from the Middle East were taken to one of Wintershall’s sour gas production facilities in a small town called Staffhorst. What preceded before we actually set foot in the sour gas field impressed me to an extent that every detail is etched in my memory.
Prior to being escorted to the sour gas complex, media representatives were taken to Wintershall’s nearby HSE centre, where we were given an hour-long safety training. At first there was a video that was played, portraying a mock scenario of a sour gas leak at the facility and how workers were using the safety equipment provided to combat the incident. The clip was played twice (some may have felt that it was repetitive) to impress upon us the fact that sour gas, which is highly toxic in nature due to the presence of lethal hydrogen sulphide (H2S) content, can indeed paralyse or even kill people within minutes if adequate HSE precautions are not exercised.
After the safety briefing, we had to undergo a mock drill to display the skills we learnt from the video – that included wearing the workplace clothing, and mobilising the safety devices provided to us, in a quick span of time. No matter how foolish I appeared with the gas mask (as seen in the picture), I did pass the test! Believe it or not, some of the journalists in our group even had to shave off their beards/stubbles before setting out for the field trip, as we were told that sour gas tends to cause irritation on facial skin with hair. Fortunately, I was clean-shaven on the day!
The purpose of narrating this tale is not to highlight the HSE practices of a particular company or glorify the safety standards in the Western oil and gas industry. Achieving a high HSE standard, begins with developing a culture that puts the usage of modern and efficient safety clothing and equipment at its heart.
During the tour, I happened to ask a Wintershall HSE official what the H2S content was in the sour gas produced at Staffhorst. “Quite a high mixture of roughly 4%,” he said. “If 4% was “high”, what would you say of the 23% H2S content in Abu Dhabi’s Shuwaihat field, or for that matter any of the Middle East sour gas fields with around 20% of H2S composition?” I retorted. Surely then, the regional oil and gas industry’s focus on HSE has got to be far intense than what I witnessed.