IRJ interview: The International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA)

IMCA to address Macondo-sized learning curves at its Safety & Environment Seminar in Rio de Janeiro, South America

Hugh Williams, chief executive of The International Marine Contractors Association (“IMCA”), talks asset threatening events, IMCA’s imminent safety seminar in Brazil, and fostering international industry-wide “collaboration and consolidation”.

The International Marine Contractors Association (“IMCA”) has always assisted members active in South America’s growing offshore, marine and underwater engineering industries, especially since its June 2009 founding of the IMCA South America Section in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, focusing on the region’s oil and gas sector.

Its South American member base is diverse—from the major contractors to clients including industry-leader Petrobras. The Section also liaises with local trade bodies such as IADC, ABEAM and ABESPetro, and continues to work with a growing number of local contractors. 

The industry is currently seeing a boost to collaboration and consolidation amongst various bodies like IMCA, as demonstrated by a number of joint or co-sponsored events. In fact, IMCA chief executive Hugh Williams expects the 2012 IMCA Safety and Environment Seminar under the theme of ‘Risk and impact in marine operations’ (Rio de Janeiro 21-22 March) to convene a veritable cornucopia of participants.

“Membership in the region is growing and we hope the seminar in Rio will provide a good platform for discussion and give IMCA a further boost,” he tells IRJ, noting that the seminar’s underlying theme of ‘asset threatening events’ looks to be one of the biggest challenges facing oil and gas groups in the wake of Macondo.

“We are delighted to have a Petrobras keynote address, plus further  Petrobras, Brazilian Navy and local speakers and to get IBP’s [Instituto Brasileiro de Petróleo, Gás e Biocombustíveis] support.”

Specific major incidents aren’t easy subjects to address in a conference, but generic conclusions can be drawn and rally renewed emphasis on competence, equipment and  operational procedures— historic IMCA focuses. With an acute understanding of each issue, well-matched by a burgeoning presence in South America, IMCA’s role in the long-term strategic development of good practice and international standardisation is not to be underestimated as we go about tackling these topics; undoubtedly the most pressing issues of our time.

Defining & addressing asset threatening events

Across IMCA’s four core divisions—diving, marine, offshore survey and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs)—assisting around 850 companies in 60 countries, runs an awareness of commonly-accepted industry parlance and how discussions are shaped regionally. As evidenced by IMCA materials and their ongoing translation and adaptation, the trade association has a worldwide focus on a wealth of issues. Internationally, this is vital to ensure IMCA’s tools are utilised effectively, particularly as the association continues to raise its profile in South America and tackle globally pertinent challenges there.

Specifically, in expanding a historic focus on occupational health issues to address concerns of high risk/low probability events in the March 2012 seminar, IMCA’s reference to ‘asset threatening events’ deals with incidents like Macondo and Montara—major disasters bringing competency issues into sharp focus.
“Those are the events we must try to avoid.  ‘Asset threatening’ for many individuals in oil and gas might mean a hydrocarbon explosion, but that’s rarely the case for IMCA contractor members,” Williams clarifies. 

“For us, this might mean the threat of collision, grounding or sinking a vessel or failure of a major piece of vessel equipment.

“There is a consensus among some people that there has been great emphasis given to the little incidents—the slips, trips and falls—and less to the big ones. In IMCA we’ve done both, I believe, and we want to make sure we cover  all incidents. That’s why this seminar is focused on the big events.”

Drawing attention to asset threatening events for vessel operations, equipment and related personnel enables IMCA to disassociate the hydrocarbon process concerns and address good practice and competence within its field of expertise. However, would it be possible to do this without the hindsight imposed by events like Macondo?

There are different ways of looking at the situation, Williams says. Many safety-focused conferences dwell on the fact that it takes a disaster for us to assume new safety approaches—just look at how Piper Alpha triggered works on emergency shutdown valves and safety case regime mechanisms, and how Alexander Kielland warranted higher standards of underwater inspection. In reality, he notes, if you consider offshore statistics over the past 20-odd years there are plenty of positive aspects worth noting as well.

“Firstly, it’s been continuously better than most other industries—certainly compared with onshore construction, farming, fishing and ordinary shipping—so the offshore industry is without doubt doing the right things in that respect,” he says.

“Secondly, the offshore statistics have continued to come down year-on-year and now reached a good level, though sadly not zero, so there’s more to do but a lot has been accomplished.”

IMCA’s move to address asset threatening events also incorporates a new top-down concept; a focus on corporate competence. The association is known globally for its support materials and guidance when it comes to all-things-onsite in the offshore environment, but in line with new competency requirements under enactment today, Williams says, the implication of corporate responsibility is another important part of the conversation.

“IMCA has provided a lot of guidance for the competence of individuals working on ships in offshore construction. If above them, the company and supervision from onshore is not competent, then the wrong instructions arrive onsite. As a result we also need to look further up the ladder,” he explains.

“Some of the most significant accidents of late have come from senior management failings rather than an individual onsite. That’s where corporate competence comes in and I think that it will be a global effect from Macondo.”

Marrying international interests with a South American setting, IMCA will effectively answer industry calls for greater competence, properly define future focus on asset threatening events, and continue to offer members active in offshore Brazil a much-needed vehicle for collaboration and consolidation both during and after the seminar.

The South American setting

Like any membership body in an emerging region of offshore industry, IMCA’s success in South America depends on forging relationships with key Brazilian organisations. They don’t come more prominent than Petrobras, but Williams explains that there is plenty more for the association to accomplish.

“We have five oil company IMCA members in the region and those are relationships we look forward to building on. Our relationships with existing contractors in the region are good, particularly with the multinationals, but there are more local contractors that don’t know us so well yet,” he says.

“They are equally as important to us as our existing members and the majors, and we hope that as our relationship with Petrobras results in the company increasingly using our materials, this will impact along the supply chain and others will move in the same direction.”

This is an approach that has served IMCA well, starting with the super-majors in Europe where member take-up includes BP, ENI, Shell, Statoil and Total—each of which has actively distributed IMCA materials globally.

Concurrently from an operational perspective, IMCA has persevered in relaying to Brazilian counterparts and companies the validity of its key guidelines, including recognition by IMCA of Brazilian initial diver training, saturation diver training and diving supervisors’ qualifications that many international players are well-versed in.

“Brazil has led the development of some of the world’s deepest and most challenging offshore projects.  The work has been achieved individually because of its location being more distant from some of the other oil patches and almost everything is done in Portuguese,” Williams notes, drawing parallels with future expansion in Russia and China where again, working English may not prove commonplace.

“IMCA has endeavoured to translate key documents for members to use locally.  Our diving document D14, the international code of practice for offshore diving, is a good example. It’s the bible among diving publications and we’ve translated that first as well as equivalent documents in offshore services and ROV.”

IMCA exists in order to help facilitate members’ work to the best of its ability, Williams continues, and regardless of geographical, linguistic or local industry intricacies, that’s exactly what the team will continue to do throughout the world.

“Each sector faces human, geopolitical, technical, environmental and financial challenges and will benefit from the avoidance of waste and improved technology, each being an IMCA aim,” he concludes.

“We continue to deliver these through collaboration and standardisation across the sector globally.”

Brazil’s offshore is the preserve of major multinationals and local contractors alike. Bids are lodged. Multimillion dollar drilling campaigns are run. Designers, fabricators and installers are converged, and in turn IMCA’s role as an industry voice for development of health, safety, environmental and technical good practice guidelines grows ever instrumental. Its materials are in play globally. Its ability to enter emerging markets and cement key relationships is proven. But perhaps most importantly, as it tackles asset threatening events and builds its profile in South America, IMCA’s ability to tailor and fine-tune regional member support and to foster world-scale collaboration and consolidation spells good news for South America’s offshore industry surge.

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