Work-life balance in the middle of the ocean

Science & technology

In the North Atlantic Ocean stands an 826,733-ton (750,000 tonnes) engineering feat: a man-made island that, day and night, plays its part in supplying the world with energy.

Welcome to Hebron, one of the world’s largest offshore oil production platforms and a truly unique place.

First, take its location in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin, a patch of ocean some 200 miles (322 kilometers) off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada – an area where the thermometer regularly drops to 20°F (-6°C).

Then, there is the structure itself. Measuring more than 787 feet (240 meters) from top to bottom, Hebron is a skyscraper anchored to the ocean floor. Holding it in place is a gravity-based structure (GBS), a foundation made of concrete that ensures Hebron can withstand the harshest storms and sizable icebergs that float around it. More cement was poured to build the GBS than was used to build the entire Hoover Dam in the U.S.

Everything about this manufactured island, designed to produce approximately 150,000 barrels of oil per day at peak, is mammoth and remarkable. At any given time, close to 220 personnel are on the platform working, or, when they’re off-duty, simply living.

And so, within this grand structure, there are small moments of daily human life. Walk through Hebron’s living quarters and you’ll see workers breaking bread or enjoying a game of pool. Hebron is unique because it’s a place where the normal coexists with the extraordinary.

Securing a round trip to Hebron

The trip starts at a large training pool in St. John’s.

From Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital, St. John’s, it takes a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter about 90 minutes to transport workers to the platform. At the heliport near the St. John’s airport, the 17 passengers making the trip are strapped in, with their survival suits fully zipped up.

The truth, though, is that the journey to Hebron begins well before stepping onto the helicopter.

It all begins outside St. John’s at a high-tech training facility called Falck Safety Services. That’s where anyone visiting or working on Hebron has to attend and pass a battery of safety classes. This training, a representation of ExxonMobil’s unyielding objective that “nobody gets hurt,” is the tollgate for all who are aspiring to set foot on Hebron.

One of the more demanding sessions teaches participants to escape a helicopter submerged in water. Spread over two days, most of the class takes place in a pool large enough to fully submerge a helicopter cabin.

Wearing their survival suits fitted with a small oxygen tank (known as a Helicopter Underwater Emergency Breathing Apparatus, or HUEBA), a dozen trainees are strapped inside a replica of a helicopter cabin, waiting to be submerged. When the top-heavy cabin hits the water, it overturns a full 180 degrees. At the pool’s edge stand instructors in scuba diving equipment overseeing the simulation and ready to help at a moment’s notice.

“Emergency response training, including training for offshore travel, is an important part of working offshore, because it ensures everyone is as prepared as possible,” said Zayra Power, a safety and health specialist at ExxonMobil in St. John’s.

Passengers have roughly 30 seconds, or the amount of oxygen in their HUEBA, to unbuckle their belt and exit the shell. If they’re sitting next to a window, they must push it open and swim out.

“Measuring more than 787 feet (240 meters) from top to bottom, Hebron is a skyscraper anchored to the ocean floor.”

To pass, trainees have to successfully exit the helicopter at least five times, including once on the aisle seat and another time by the window. It’s tiring, grueling work, but it’s the only way to secure a round-trip ticket to Hebron.

On the platform, sights and sounds

Hebron is full of action – producing energy is just one of them.

In addition to its size, the other striking element about Hebron are the sounds – they offer a reminder of the constant activity animating the place. Announcements on the PA system cut through the hustle and bustle. And, twice a day, helicopters – weather permitting – arrive from St. John’s to shuttle workers back home or drop off replacements who are starting their 21-day shift. All the while, the rumble of the ocean surrounds daily life.

The buzz of activity remains steady both on and off the platform. Supply vessels deliver food and supplies critical to Hebron’s daily operations. Every month, 30 containers of food are shipped to serve about 25,000 meals. The Hebron platform has three pedestal cranes that manage approximately 2,700 lifts a month from the vessel or around the platform. Last year, roughly 22,000 tons of above-deck cargo was delivered to Hebron.

Drilling on Hebron is managed from the drilling control center, where operators work in relative quiet. Inside, much like pilots monitoring flight controls inside a plane’s cockpit, operators oversee multiple screens displaying things like the rotational speed and angle of the drill bit winding through the seafloor hundreds of feet below.

“As drillers, we drill wells from start to finish. Our goal throughout is to safely connect the platform to the production reservoir,” explained Hebron’s drilling superintendent, Craig Rogers. “This is a team effort. We rely on many other people to ensure our wells are successfully drilled,” added Rogers.

From Hebron’s space-age control room, technicians oversee thousands of moving parts and processes. Those include the platform’s daily production and the amount of oil accumulating in its tanks, which are capable of storing more than 1 million barrels. Technicians have a “twin” who shadows the platform’s operations from an exact replica onshore support room in St. John’s, hundreds of miles from the heart of the action.

The platform’s five production wells currently produce about 100,000 barrels of oil per day.

Hebron after hours

Some jam, while others play pool or watch a movie.

Downtime on Hebron can be spent shooting the breeze over a meal or playing pool. Off-duty workers rock tunes in the jam room while others stream a movie to relax.

It all happens in the platform’s living quarters, a seven-story facility with the look and feel of a comfortable Caribbean cruise ship.

“We typically discuss what we did on our previous time off, how our families and friends are and what’s new in our lives,” added Power.

Free time is an opportunity to rest, eat and recuperate from the demands of operating this giant structure. The platform sleeps up to 220 people during normal operations. Rooms are big enough to fit a bunk bed, a bathroom and a two-person sofa.

In the dining room, chefs specialize in serving hearty comfort foods like overflowing omelets, thick steaks and pork stir-fry. Eggs are a particular staple for the crew. Every year Hebron workers consume more than 100,000 eggs. “Honestly, it’s some of the best food I have ever tasted,” noted Rogers.

“Day and night, Hebron’s living quarters are a capsule of normalcy in a place that is anything but.”

A few steps from the dining room, workers play pool or cards in the employee lounge. On some nights, the muffled sound of tight guitar riffs seeps out of the jam room. Music is a big deal for the Hebron community, especially for Rex Goudie, who was the 2007 “Canadian Idol” runner-up. “Thanks to my music career I was able to build the type of work ethic that led me to be out here as a mechanic with ExxonMobil,” said Goudie.

Day and night, Hebron’s living quarters are a capsule of normalcy in a place that is anything but.

For workers ending their three-week shift, departure day is filled with some excitement. By the time the helicopter lifts off to begin its 90-minute journey back to St. John’s, passengers are buckled up and their travel bags are stored. As the departing group gains altitude, the platform morphs into a tiny speck surrounded by the infinite ocean. The contrast is a stark reminder that Hebron is a single cog in a vast chain that provides the energy the world needs to grow and prosper.

 

The Hebron co-venturers are: ExxonMobil Canada Properties, Chevron Canada Limited, Suncor Energy Inc., Equinor Ltd., Nalcor Energy – Oil and Gas Inc.

Tags:   Hebronoffshore oil platform
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