For more than a year, NASA has been working with Petrofac to deliver a suite of safety courses to current and future offshore workers, suitable for those operating in a range of offshore industries.

Delegates are taught how to survive helicopter ditching and put out fires in simulated scenarios at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) in Houston, Texas, US, which is also used for spacewalk planning and training.

In February 2013, the Hi-Con Training Programme was reapproved to provide safety courses to the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation (OPITO) standard, demonstrating the need for high-quality training in the sector. Cindy Hendershot, program manager at Raytheon Technical Services, NASA’s contractor for operations at NBL, explains why the space and offshore industries make the perfect match when it comes to work safety training, and reveals her company’s plans to expand its course offering to those working onboard floating production vessels.

Sarah Blackman: How successful has the Hi-Con Training Programme been since its launch in November 2011?

Cindy Hendershot: We have had more than 600 delegates on the course and we’ve had fantastic feedback about the facility and the instructors. We’ve taken the same people who support astronaut diving in the NDL (no decompression limit) and Petrofac has trained them to be instructors for this training programme.

What training courses do you offer?

We have a three-day Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training (BOSIET), which is required in many areas of the world, especially in the North Sea. It teaches skills for surviving a helicopter ditching, such as how to get into a life raft and how to protect yourself.

We also teach basic firefighting skills for people on a rig without firefighting help at the time. We teach them self-rescue techniques and how to put the fire out. There is also a first aid portion.

"Offshore is very high-risk – it’s very similar to operating in space. We train people to operate in those high-consequence environments."

We offer the one-day refresher course Further Offshore Emergency Training (FOET), because the certification for the BOSIET lasts four years, so after that time a renewal is required. Then there is the one-day Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET) course, which is provided to people who don’t require the BOSIET because they will be working in warm water.

We also offer half-day firefighting and half-day first aid courses. Some companies that work in the Gulf of Mexico also offer our Safe Gulf course, which is classroom based.

Are there plans in the pipeline to expand your course offering?

We are looking at offering marine training for people who will be working on or operating a vessel, such as a floating production vessel, or any kind of vessel that participates in drilling or well development. This training has to be coastguard approved, so a little bit more is required of people on a vessel. We are looking at partnering with the Texas Marine Academy at Texas A&M University in Galveston to offer a complete vessel training course.

How do your instructors simulate dangerous situations in the oil and gas industry?

In the helicopter training portion, they tell you what will happen to you if a helicopter has to ditch. Then they put you through six or seven scenarios, from getting into the helicopter in a dry environment on the deck of the pool, to the more complex scenario of going under water in a submerged helicopter that is then capsized. Another complex scenario is where you are not only capsized and under water, but you also have to escape out of a window on the opposite side of the cabin, instead of the one right next to you.

I’ve taken the HUET part of the course and it’s the scariest one for all delegates, but the way that Petrofac prepares you is comforting and it helps build your confidence.

In the fire-training portion, the instructors tell you how and where fires could start, and how to put them out. Then they demonstrate how you use each kind of fire extinguisher. We are not teaching them to be professional firefighters by any means, but we are giving them a first level of basic firefighting and self rescue.

What was the reason behind NASA’s decision to train the oil and gas workforce?

The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory has a very strong safety culture and we chose to partner with Petrofac because of its strong safety culture. Staff at NASA and in the offshore industry do similar work in terms of diving, rigging and lifting, so we felt that the two cultures would mesh well.

Raytheon is on contract to provide not only the operations of the NBL, but also to help NASA bring in other users as its use has dropped off in the last year or so. We felt this was an excellent fit, especially regarding the technical capability of our people.

Is work safety lacking in the oil and gas industry?

Offshore is a very high-risk environment and, to me, it’s very similar to operating in space. We train people to operate in those high-consequence environments. Safety training is very important in an environment like that.

How has the safety programme altered since it was approved to deliver survival courses to the OPITO standard in April 2012?

To get that approval, we had to implement all the capabilities needed to provide OPITO training. Recently, OPITO carried out a surveillance audit with us and we were reapproved.

There’s always room for improvement in this area, so OPITO gave us a few pointers, mainly in the management of the infrastructure, but the organisation said the instructors were doing a great job and that, for the most part, what we are doing is well within the standard.