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How Wearables can Improve Safety in the Oil and Gas Industry

It takes a special kind of courage and a great deal of experience to do certain types of fieldwork for a utility company. Watching a specialist engineer dangling from a helicopter fixing a live transmission line is a sight that is not easily forgotten. Field workers in the power, gas and oil industries often work in perilous situations. Although every safety precaution is taken, the uncertainty factor is the human. The realization that workers could be tired or stressed to the point of danger has given rise to measuring reaction times, heart rate and other vital indicators while the employee is busy in hazardous situations. This is done using various wearable clothing and accessories.

A High-Risk Industry: Oil and Gas

The oil and gas industry is recognized as one of the most hazardous industries for many field-workers. Threats include working at height, inhalation of toxic fumes, explosions and being struck or crushed by vehicles, plant and machinery. Ironically, one of the biggest contributions to fatalities in the United States are road accidents. Approximately four out of ten fatalities in this industry are caused this way, generally because of driver fatigue. In such cases, there are several workers in the vehicle, and there is a risk that they all succumb.

The problem of oil and gas-related fatalities is very prevalent in the United States. While the national figures for occupational fatalities in 2014 were 3 per 100,000 workers, in the oil and gas industry the figure was 5 times higher.

It is said that the recent decline in the oil price has resulted in less deaths; this is because there is less employment, not improved safety.

While there is a special task force addressing the problems in the industry, and they found that much of the equipment used, especially in drilling and extraction, could be improved, ensuring that workers are monitored for safety breaches and high-risk situations will surely reduce the fatalities.

Connecting the Physical and Digital to Avoid Harm

There is a very clumsy word that has been coined for the merging of the physical and digital worlds: "phygital". However, it does describe how wearables, a subset of the Internet of Things (IOT), can play a critical role in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT). Many of the safety precautions observed in power utilities can apply to the related industry of oil and gas, as the risks and type of work are similar. Here are some analogies:

  • power field workers also work at height, when building and maintaining transmission and distribution lines
  • they often work at remote sites, and have to travel far
  • there is a risk of explosion or fire, especially in substations
  • electrocution is an obvious threat
  • power stations also have miles of piping within the plant

Using wearables, whether it is clothing embedded with sensors, smart glasses and helmets or exoskeletons, will contribute greatly to safety in all industries. The harsh reality of occupational accidents and fatalities is that they cost the organization from every perspective, whether it is time, money or loss of scarce skills, apart from the trauma caused to family and co-workers. There are many options available right now that will promote safety, and a long wish-list of future innovations for the workplace. Let’s focus on a selected few.

Working at Height

Most of the safety regulations around working at heights focus on devices that will prevent or limit falls, without paying much heed to the reason why workers fall. It has been recognized for some years now by power utilities that field-workers who are working at height experience extreme levels of stress, and should be summoned down from where they are working as soon as physical warning signs are detected. This is done by monitoring all the physical signs of stress (or fatigue) and calling the worker down as soon as his or her stress levels are outside the acceptable limit. The sensors relay the information to the supervisor's smartphone.

Threat of inhalation of toxins and fumes

A combination of nanotechnology and near-field technology has been prototyped by MIT researchers to produce a sensor that will react to a minuscule presence of toxic gas in the environment. Carbon nanotubes are wrapped in an insulating material to render them inert. The insulating material disintegrates when toxic compounds are sensed, releasing the nanotubes, which will then be able to send an NFC communication to a smartphone. This technology is very cheap and effective and will work both in battlefields and industrial situations where toxic gases are likely to occur.

Safety attire

Engineering companies are in the best space to develop smart work-clothes. While there are many manufacturers of work-clothes embedded with sensors, these tend to be bulky and uncomfortable. Instead, there are clothes that are the sensors, and that will send out signals depending on the movements of the wearer. Here’s an example of how the "connected suit" would work is if an electrician raises his arms to work on a circuit box that is supposed to be off, but is live, and his suit sends a command to immediately shut the power down, based on his arm movements and the perceived hazard.

Asleep at the Wheel

There have been many initiatives in addressing driver (or any other form of fatigue), which are mostly reactive. The science is based on how frequently the subject blinks, although some people will blink less, while others will blink more often.

There is one unique approach to measure drowsiness, rather than fatigue, that can alert the driver, or their manager, monitoring from a remote site, that there is a problem. The level of drowsiness is rated according to the scale developed by a sleep expert, Dr Murray Johns, and is a complex of interactions between eyelid movement, neuromuscular action in the upper eyelid and the eye itself.

The technology involves a pair of smart glasses that incorporate infrared technology to pick up these subtle indications.

The readings are transmitted either to a smartphone or a larger screen display depending on the product type. Alerts are also transmitted back to the base or command center via 3G or WiFi. This early warning system is invaluable for drivers out in the field as well as drivers of industrial vehicles on site. Fatigue Management is a major issue in the oil and gas industries, and wearables like these glasses, supported by the mobile app, will save lives.

The Future of Industrial Wearables

There is still tremendous scope to incorporate wearables into the daily routine of all industries, especially oil and gas. The roadblock in the way for the oil and gas industry is the extreme ruggedness required of these wearables. Late last year, at the Wearable Technology Show in London, Blaine Tookey, Technology Principal at BP, explained some of the variables that any device must cope with, like temperatures ranging from -50°C in Alaska to 60°C in Iraq. He welcomed any innovations that will improve safety for workers in the fields, especially hands-free aids, embedded in clothing, or smart headgear.

What is needed, in any case, to truly integrate digital aids into daily work tasks is a robust IOT platform, that will integrate, monitor and interpret what devices are relaying to other machines about the people who are wearing them, a form of human SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition). Technologists who bring in their experience in such industries as healthcare and consumer electronics, like the IoT development company Itransition, are in the position to visualize how this new platform will integrate into existing process automation systems and become integral to field workers’ daily routine.

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