Safety, Safety, Safety!


Prudhoe Bay can be a very dangerous place to work if you don't know what you're doing (and even if you do.)  Safety is of paramount concern here, as there are a great number of hazards facing workers.  To minimize these hazards, workers are required to participate in a safety meeting every morning with their immediate work unit before any work begins for the day.  Additionally, other safety meetings are required weekly and monthly (the less frequent the meeting, the larger the audience.)  The reason for the emphasis on safety is because of the wide variety of hazards that exist for oilfield workers:

Fire training on the real thing.

- Flammability (an obvious one):  Workers are required to wear fire-retardant clothing at all times while working, and to attend firefighting training twice annually (both employer-provided.)  Additionally, any equipment used to transfer flammable materials must be grounded to earth, to prevent a buildup of static electricity that could ignite flammable vapors (this is especially critical in the cold, dry environment of the Arctic!)

Chemicals:  Workers can be exposed to a number of harmful chemicals used in the production process.  The most prevalent (and insidious) of these is hydrogen sulfide, or H2S.  H2S is a noxious gas produced naturally by bacteria present in crude oil.  At low concentrations, it has a strong rotten-egg smell, and is merely a nuisance.  At higher concentrations, however, it deadens the nerve endings in the nose to prevent being able to smell it.  This might be a welcome side effect, except that at still higher concentrations, it asphixiates you by paralyzing your diaphragm so you can't breathe!  To combat this threat, all personnel who work directly at the wellhead or in process facilities must wear electronic H2S detectors.  Other chemical hazards include biocide (used to kill H2S-producing bacteria), various drilling fluids, strong acids, explosives, corrosion inhibitors, and even some radioactive materials (used for downhole diagnostic work.)

- Moving Equipment:  Large trucks, cranes, rig hoists, forklifts, payloaders, snowblowers, graders, etc.

- Pressure: Most of the flowlines and wellheads are under tremendous pressure--sometimes up to 1.5 tons per square inch. (Sort of like working on a giant cast iron bomb.) Low pressure lines are actually a greater hazard, though. Low pressure tends to breed complacency, and any leaks in a low pressure line are not as obvious. Furthermore, a sudden release of low pressure at high volume can still do tremendous damage to nearby personnel and equipment.

- Weather:  Arctic weather is nothing to mess with!  Serious injury or death can easily result from not being prepared.  In winter, wind chills frequently dip below -50 F  (I personally have experienced a -101 F wind chill...but not for very long!!)  Outdoor workers are expected to function in wind chills of up to -70 F, but they are also expected to exercise common sense and warm up as often as needed--even if not much work gets done.  Getting frostbite will subject you to disciplinary action for your foolishness.  Blizzards are another common occurrence.  Since winter is mostly dark in Prudhoe, it doesn't take much for whiteout conditions to occur (where you can't see more than a few feet in front of you.)  Depending on visibility, travel may be restricted to convoy only, or banned outright for the duration of the 'blow'.

You can just feel the cold looking at this picture...


Security guards in Prudhoe Bay do much more than just checking IDs.

If, despite your best efforts, you are injured on the job, the two companies each have a field hospital and can arrange medical evacuation to Fairbanks or Anchorage if necessary.

There is only one police officer on duty in all of Prudhoe Bay, and even he doesn't live there. Since the vast majority of the oilfield is privately leased, the oil companies have a private force of security officers to enforce order (they are also trained as paramedics.)

Everyone entering/leaving the oilfield must check in/out with security and declare their destination. This not only keeps the general public out of a dangerous area, but allows for accurate accounting of personnel in case of emergency.

In addition, the security officers' pickups have radar, and can pull you over for exceeding the 45 mph speed limit. When they issue you a ticket, it doesn't come with a fine, it's a disciplinary measure. If you get three within a year, they "run you off." (Oilfield slang for involuntary job termination.)

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