Mitigating Installation Risk to Keep Assets and People Safe

Asset integrity, health and safety, and PFP (passive fire protection) should be comfortable bedfellows, because PFP primarily works in two ways:

  • Employing construction elements to contain fire or limit its spread
  • Fire protection to structural elements to protect from the heat of a fire causing those structures to fail and collapse

By protecting structures from fire using PFP, you protect the integrity of an asset and this helps you achieve what is your first concern – the safety of your people.

PFP – Protection for people

Passive fire protection, such as intumescent epoxy or cementitious coatings, provides protection for people because it provides protection for structures and maintains structural integrity. In an ideal world people who live or work in a building or other installation should be able to escape hazard such as fire.

Indeed, individuals who work in commercial office buildings have become used to unannounced fire drills to test how quickly and effectively they are able to exit the building to a safe location on hearing the fire alarm.

However, what do you do when you can’t simply get away? Imagine an offshore oil and gas installation, most likely hundreds of miles from dry land with the working and living areas of the structure possibly hundreds of feet above the sea, which in cold climates may be cold enough to cause death by hypothermia for anyone entering that environment within a very short time.

In these cases, containment of the fire within the area that is burning and protection of the surrounding structure to allow an orderly abandonment by lifeboat is indeed a matter of life and death.

Unfortunately, over the years a number of offshore fires and explosions have taken the lives of offshore workers, and whilst valuable lessons have been learned on how to prevent fires and put in place rigorous safety practices, these tragic events still occur.

Types of PFP

There are several types of PFP to protect assets and people.

For example, defend-in-place strategies seek to limit the spread of fire and smoke to other compartments. Installations may be designed to restrict the ability of fire and gas to move beyond their point of origin.

In oil and gas installations, steel is treated with PFP products to protect it against hydrocarbon fires which are rapid temperature rise fires that can raise the temperature of unprotected steel to beyond its point of collapse within a few minutes. Epoxy intumescent coatings are commonly used. They need to be adhesive, hard but flexible, tough, and protect against corrosion. When they are exposed to heat, they need to create an insulating carbonaceous char to protect the steel.

In comparison to paint used for anticorrosion, PFP coatings are more complex and may have stages in their application, such as the installation of reinforcing mesh, where specific controls and skills are vital to ensure that the final installation meets design requirements for the lifetime of the asset.

Failure to control the application process and follow the appropriate QA/QC standards for the coating in question can lead to many problems, including:

  • The final system will not meet the design fire specification in the event of a fire
  • Flaws in the coating system such as voids, uncured material or other defects can lead to corrosion underneath the coating which is not externally visible
  • Degradation of the coating over time due to severe weathering which is common in certain environments

Application, maintenance, and safety

Issues with PFP installation can occur well into the lifetime of the asset, as oil and gas installations are often dynamic environments where modification to existing structures and addition of services such as cabling and piping may require removal of or damage to the original PFP installation.

Frequently, those carrying out such works are not aware of the original design PFP requirements. In some cases it has been shown that maintenance staff are not aware that they have removed a fire safety-critical item during modification works.

Thus, having individuals well trained in PFP to supervise and ensure remedial works are carried out to a high standard is extremely important.

Applicators often have no knowledge of PFP

Materials used for PFP are highly regulated in terms of their quality and performance, which is independently verified, but the application and inspection of PFP is less well regulated.

At the time of writing, owner operators typically specify that inspectors of PFP coatings should be Paint Inspector Level 2 qualified – but anticorrosion coatings knowledge and experience is not adequate when it comes to PFP coatings. This is an issue that is putting the integrity of assets at risk, and, most importantly, means that people within high-risk installations have a higher risk to their health and safety. 

The Passive Fire Protection Network (PFPNet), together with the Institute of Corrosion, is developing and delivering PFP training courses designed to accredit individuals who are engaged in PFP installation and inspection. The courses may well also be of interest to engineers and professionals who need to have an understanding of the practical elements of PFP installation and maintenance.

Training will be provided by qualified individuals, and an important part of the overall programme is accreditation of the course along with qualification of the individuals who successfully conclude the training. Within the training, there will be elements that cover health and safety while at work – meeting CSCS H&S requirements for UK-based work.

This new training has been developed by drawing on the experience and needs of the industry, and will ensure that best practices are followed to and above current regulations. We expect the PFPNet Competency Framework to be mandated by asset owners and other stakeholders as a requirement for projects and operations.

For more information, contact either John Dunk at PFPNet or David Mobbs at ICorr.