Digitalisation is radically altering the petroleum industry, and will mean major changes for many employees. But what will tomorrow’s working day look like for the digital oil worker?
Introducing new technologies and solutions to the oil sector is leading to big transformations in jobs and the organisation of work.
These innovations cover everything from the use of drones, portable technology and sensors on clothes and equipment to new forms of interaction and decision support for automated systems.
“New digital solutions can reduce or eliminate manual and demanding tasks, and have a big potential for reducing human error,” says Linn Iren Bergh.
A senior adviser at the PSA, she is heading its follow-up of the industry’s digitalisation work and sees many safety gains related to the new technology now being adopted.
“In drilling and well, for example, digital well planning and automated drilling operations are increasingly being utilised,” she notes.
“That gives drilling personnel more decision support when doing their job because the system reports errors if challenges occur. That permits earlier intervention.”
Another example is provided by hand-held units such as tablets. On stream since 2019, the Johan Sverdrup field was designed specifically for the use of these devices.
They greatly simplify everyday work by sharing real-time data. Procedures, drawings and work permits can thereby be called up in the work area, while sharing information with the control room.
But innovative technical solutions may also pose new risks, Bergh says. These often arise because their users get pushed into the background.
“Our audits often reveal a lack of attention to human aspects when digital solutions are developed and tested,” she observes.
“Knowledge about people and how they react in given circumstances must be incorporated at every stage from design to application. Equipment has to be tailored for varied user needs.
“It’s not least important to test the user’s ability to do their work both under normal conditions and in cases where something goes wrong.”
Bergh emphasises that the introduction of new technology calls for expertise to be updated – not only for those working offshore, but also for management.
“It’s important that sufficient time is allocated for training, and that this is provided at the right point,” she cautions.
“Although adopting portable technology, for example, has many positive aspects, we mustn’t downplay that this means changes for its users.
“That’s why we, as the supervisory authority, are concerned to see the companies making the necessary risk assessments. And it’s important that these include the employees.
“Their experience is very significant, not least when identifying and managing risk. Good employee involvement will also help to create trust in the technology.”
She points out that alienation is a possible negative effect of digital technology, and says that the PSA sees this as being a particular issue with automation.
“When we combine systems and processes in new ways, knowledge of the underlying preconditions can go missing and we can lose our overview of all the risks in the job we’re doing.”
Fatal examples of alienation have been identified in the aviation industry. After two Boeing 737 Max planes crashed in 2018-19, investigators concluded that the pilots did not understand how the automated systems on board changed the aircraft’s properties.
As a result, they reacted in the wrong way when a critical position actually arose. A total of 346 people were killed in these accidents.
“Specialists call this phenomenon ‘automation bias’ – because something comes from a machine, we have a tendency to regard it as more correct,” says Bergh.
“That could apply to automating risky operations on oil facilities. With drilling operations, for example, this converts personnel from managing a process to monitoring it.”
She notes that automated systems still depend entirely on people. “Even though their role will increasingly be monitoring and supervising, they must be able to intervene and carry out critical operations if the system fails.”
Knowledge about people and how they react in given circumstances must be incorporated at every stage from design to application. Equipment has to be tailored for varied user needs.
The PSA’s goal is to help ensure that the industry gives high priority to safety and the working environment when digital technology is developed and applied in the companies.
“We want them to assess risk and vulnerability from an integrated perspective which embraces human, technological and organisational conditions,” Bergh emphasises.
“Each company must take ownership and control of the risk when they develop and adopt new systems and solutions. Involving the workforce is an important part of this.”
This article has been taken from our Dialogue journal, which aims to encourage debate on some of the most relevant issues and challenges faced by the industry in the safety area.