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Protecting worker health and wellbeing on oil and gas pipelines

Author : Duncan Johns, Managing Director, ION Science

12 August 2022

Protecting workers is a requirement of any employer or workplace, but when your industry involves hazardous materials, difficult or dangerous working scenarios or risk of exposure to harmful compounds, the stakes are much higher.

Image: ION Science
Image: ION Science

(Click here to view article in digital edition)

Worker health, wellbeing and protection are now high priority items for any business, regardless of the potential risk, thanks to legal requirements and advanced industry best practice.

In the oil and gas sector, particularly for pipeline management, the risks workers’ (and the public potentially) can face are often much greater than the average workplace. Serious health issues can result from exposure to harmful chemical compounds, as well as the risk of fire and oxygen-deficient atmospheres. Ensuring protection and safety is implemented at the highest level possible is paramount. Laws dictate the legal limits and necessary protection, but private companies equally have a responsibility to deliver the best protection for their staff.

How to protect workers effectively?


While many workers will have some knowledge of how to work safely, based on either previous experience or education, each pipeline location comes with its own unique set of challenges. Delivering training that is tailored to each work scenario allows workers to understand their daily tasks, how to respond in emergencies, and any specific challenges that the pipeline they work on faces. For example, a pipeline that is situated within a radius of a population may need additional air quality monitoring and reporting. A pipeline that is due for an upgrade will need more regular inspections to check the degradation is not causing harm to public health or the environment.

Training also means staff are regularly updated with the latest advances in law, technology and safety procedures. Regular refresher training on key aspects of the job such as safe working practices, fire safety and air quality monitoring is also good to offer, with training records kept to demonstrate workers are kept informed and up to date in the event of an inspection, audit or inquiry. Training should be conducted at a level workers are familiar with, taking into consideration things like language, cultural differences, and learning preferences.

Image: ION Science
Image: ION Science


Working with hazardous materials such as crude oil, natural gas and finished petroleum products means workers need to have the right type of equipment to protect them from exposure. These products are highly harmful to human health and life, and even minute exposure incidents can cause immediate or irreparable damage.

Critical equipment such as respirators or face coverings, fireproof clothing, gloves, boots, goggles and other PPE (personal protective equipment) help protect workers in the event of exposure or accident. However, equipment should extend beyond what a worker is responsible for wearing and look more widely at the workplace set-up. Appropriate equipment could include fire extinguishers, chemical spill kits, communications devices (radios, phones etc), and correctly serviced or appropriate tools for carrying out the job.


Advances in technology for monitoring and recording of data, as well as detection of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), has been the biggest leap forwards in protecting workers. Rather than relying on manual inspection or weekly collated data uploads, gas detection instruments can be equipped at key points on site, worn on the person or installed into units for advanced detection and monitoring.

This kind of real-time monitoring means workers can be alerted to any potential exposure to VOCs in seconds. Data patterns can be tracked easily by occupational hygienists or site health and safety managers, allowing a potential incident or health risk to be spotted early and resolved quickly. Fixed fenceline detectors or remote telemetry units (RTUs) are particularly useful for pipeline management, as they can be placed at regular intervals and monitor VOC levels around the clock, alerting workers of any hazardous levels. Implementing these at compressor stations is also very effective, given that these stations can have high levels of dangerous VOC buildup and need careful monitoring.

Pipelines and compressor stations are commonly at risk for harmful VOCs such as cyclohexane, benzene, toluene, xylene, and toluene. As these can have serious and long-lasting health effects for workers, the environment, and potentially local populations, monitoring and minimizing the risk of VOC build-up is essential.

Image: ION Science
Image: ION Science

With increasingly sensitive and nuanced instrumentation available, it’s possible to not only minimise the risk of exposure to harmful VOCs, but to even predict and avoid incidents in future. Taking an ‘internet of things’ (IOT) approach to data collection and monitoring not only allows for more efficient use of resources, but also helps protect workers from exposure to VOCs and safeguarding their health and wellbeing effectively.

What challenges will the future bring for protecting workers?

As technology advances to help improve the protection of worker health, safety, and wellbeing, the challenges of current infrastructure can be reduced or minimised. As we shift away from traditional power sources like natural gas and crude oil, new challenges will arise that pose an equal, and untested, threat to workers.

Decommissioning and Decarbonisation

Decommissioning of refineries, compressor stations, pipelines and more opens up the risk of VOC exposure if not handled correctly. There are likely to be few workers with advanced knowledge of how to safely decommission a large historic site, and so reliance on technology, such as PID sensors and gas detection instruments, will be essential to protect people at every step.

Even after decommissioning, depending on the stability of the site, it may be necessary to monitor these long-term to ensure there is no residual VOC leakage or damage to health and the environment. Fitting monitoring devices like fenceline detectors which can be synchronised with data alerts would be an ideal solution. Choosing a reliable and long-life instrument with a quality detection lamp would also be necessary to avoid unscheduled maintenance.

Biofuel and Anaerobic Fuel Processing

Duncan Johns, Managing Director, ION Science
Duncan Johns, Managing Director, ION Science

Reusing food waste or growing crops to process into fuel is a fast-growing trend and one sectors are keen to explore for its sustainability and limited carbon impact. However, biofuel and anaerobic digestion plants need to be approached with the same amount of care and safety as oil rigs and refineries. Nitrous oxide is a risk at biofuel plants, as is ethanol and subsequent resulting VOCs. In anaerobic digestion plants and other waste-processing plants, dichloroethane, vinyl chloride and dimethyl sulfide are among some of the VOCs resulting from processing.

As this type of recycling and waste-processing becomes more commonplace to provide energy, it will be essential to outfit sites with appropriate levels of gas detection instrumentation and monitoring for pipelines that supply the raw materials into plants. Workers will need training, equipment and technology to ensure they can carry out their tasks safely and with minimal impact to their health.

Choosing Gas Detection Instrumentation and PID Sensors

Whether working on oil and gas pipelines now or managing waste processing plants in the future, it’s clear that using gas detection instruments and advanced PID sensor technology is key to keeping workers safe and healthy no matter what. Ensuring that the right type of gas detection instruments are being used effectively to monitor and reduce VOC exposure levels is also critical.

Protecting workers at every stage of the job is essential for companies. Maintaining good standards of health, providing the highest levels of protection and equipment and ensuring your staff wellbeing is the top of your business agenda are all things that will set you apart and reduce the risk of incident now or in the future.

About the author:

Duncan Johns, Managing Director of ION Science, has been with the company for over 20 years, and has extensive experience in the fields of gas detection and gas management. In addition to this, Duncan has worked with international firms in gas detection, and provides robust leadership to the team at ION Science.

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