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Managing Oil and Gas Pipeline Safety

By Daniel Clark
Published: January 12, 2022 | Last updated: May 8, 2022
Key Takeaways

Pipeline safety is a complex endeavor, involving multiple parties, aging infrastructure, and the need for ongoing assessment and maintenance.

Caption: Welder working on a segment of pipeline Source: gorodenkoff / iStock

Oil and gas pipeline projects have a way of attracting controversy. Constructing new lines and expanding existing ones raises environmental concerns and invites public scrutiny.

Here in oil and gas country, incidents turn into major headlines. The costs of any loss mount quickly, especially when you factor in the damage to the public perception of your company and the industry as a whole.

Like the airline industry, those incidents may be few and far in between but you'll certainly hear about one if it happens.

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What gets less attention, however, are the safety risks faced by pipeline workers - and the work that goes into ensuring their protection on the job.

The US alone has nearly 200,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines and 2.4 million miles of natural gas pipelines. Together, they transport 64% of US energy commodities. Maintaining them and ensuring a continuous flow of oil and gas involves more than 200,000 workers.

We're dealing with a massive infrastructure system and the high exposure to safety risks that come with it. Minimizing those risks requires careful coordination and thoughtful, informed management practices.

Pipeline Safety Programs

At a basic level, pipeline safety management systems are not that dissimilar from those used in other construction or infrastructure management projects.

The elements of the program are going to be the same, including:

  • Safety policy
  • Contractor management
  • Hazard assessment
  • Hazard control
  • Inspections
  • Maintenance
  • Investigation
  • Emergency response
  • Training

A key consideration is that building pipelines is a collaborative endeavor involving many different trades. Every element of the safety program needs to consider the inputs from simultaneous operations.

(Learn more in The 6 Key Elements of an Effective Safety Program)

Pipeline Hazards

On top of that, workers on pipelines collectively deal with every major hazard category:

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  • Work at heights
  • Confined spaces
  • Driving and transportation
  • Open excavaction
  • Water
  • Wildlife
  • Weather
  • Inexperienced workers
  • Hazardous atmospheres
  • Electricity
  • Mobile equipment

If you can name a hazard, there's a good chance it's something pipeline workers have to face. Because of that, each and every worker needs a comprehensive overview of all the risks associated with their work - not just the ones they will face individually. They need to be engaged, ready, and participating because safety supervisors can’t be everywhere at once and may be responsible for miles of area.

A robust hazard assessment program is a cornerstone to a pipeline health and safety management system. The assessments should consider:

  • All of the tasks that will be performed by the company
  • Who is qualified to carry them out
  • All of the hazards associated with those tasks
  • What will be done to control them

This crosses over into the training program, because all workers will need to understand their responsibilities in terms of hazard assessment and control, as well as the potential consequences of forgoing or overlooking controls in terms of both safety and disciplinary processes.

(Learn about The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls)

Contractor Responsibilities

Much of the responsibility for safety administration on a pipeline construction project will be delegated to contractors.

During its construction phase, a single stretch of pipeline is broken up into "spreads." Depending on the extent of the project, each spread can be the handled by a different team.

The pipeline's owner/operator, then, maybe entrust the spreads to multiple prime contractors. Each of these prime contractors will, in turn, bring on subcontractors.

Although there are multiple distinct parties involved in a single project, there is a clear hierarchy for managing safety. Subcontractors report to their prime contractor. Each prime contractor is responsible for the safety program on the site they oversee. And it's the owner/operator who ultimately sets the standards to which all of these other parties must conform.

(Learn about The 4 Stages of Contractor Management)

Preventative Maintenance

It’s often remarked that, all things considered, transporting oil and gas by pipeline is far safer than using railways or tanker trucks. However, the problem is that pipelines age and accumulate damage over time, making an eventual failure more and more probable.

Within the massive pipeline infrastructure, there are weaknesses that need to be located and addressed. And all this maintenance is no mean feat. When it comes to US crude pipelines, there are some old, old, old assets still in operation. 23% were built in the 1950s and about 4% (2,138 miles) are now a century old.

How can the safety of these systems be assured?

The answer lies in rigorous preventative maintenance processes, and levels of oversight to ensure they are completed.

This is both a safety program element of the overall operation of a pipeline, and an operation itself for which a discrete and specific safety program needs to be developed.

In the United States, pipeline safety is under the jurisdiction of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Given the amount of infrastructure under their purview, the best they can do is to spot check and sample operating pipelines and help establish guidelines for companies to ensure the safety of their own pipeline assets. Pipeline operators are mostly responsible to set up integrity programs to check the health of their pipelines. This must be done periodically, whether leaks have been detected or not.

(Find out How to Improve Pipeline Safety Management with Aerial Data)

"Pigging" lines is one of the key maintenance processes for pipelines. It involves running a device through the pipeline using the flowing product. The device takes readings of the pipeline’s integrity along its length. A pig (pipeline inspection gauge) records measurements of wall thickness, weld health, and signs of corrosion so that a maintenance program can effectively decide which sections to prioritize for maintenance operations. They may dig up and replace sections entirely, "daylight" a pipeline and do subsequent inspections, or bolster corrosion prevention methods such as cathodic protection.

A Complicated Endeavor

Like any other article on pipeline safety, this one can only scratch the surface of the subject. It's a complex endeavor with major stakes and multiple interlocking parts.

It's no surprise, then, that many of our great safety leaders make their home in the pipeline industry. And attending to the massive scope and risky nature of their operation has fostered innovation and collaboration between specialists.

Much of the infrastructure may be old. Some is downright ancient. But I'm confident we'll continue seeing new and bright ideas coming out of pipeline safety in the future.

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Written by Daniel Clark

Profile Picture of Daniel Clark

Daniel Clark is the founder and President of Clark Health and Safety Ltd., providing safety and quality consultation across various industries in Calgary, Alberta. Daniel has a Bachelor of Science degree, certification in health and safety, certificates in both CAD design and CNC, auditing certifications and the designation of Canadian Registered Safety Professional. Being raised and practicing in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s energy industry, most of Daniel’s career has been energy related. He has performed safety and quality roles from field supervision to office-based administration and management. Daniel’s consulting business has worked with organizations offering engineering services, restoration, pipeline, environmental, manufacturing and food service.

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