Scope

Origin Energy, in charge of coal seam gas drilling for the Australia Pacific liquefied Natural Gas (APLNG) project, stopped work at 12 sites in Queensland in March 2014 as white asbestos (chrysotile) was found in a drilling mud product. The product – called NUTPLUG – was used during drilling to help seal the walls of a gas well to prevent drilling fluids moving sideways when the surrounding rock is porous.

Origin temporarily suspended drilling operations, undertook environmental sampling, sought expert analysis of potential health risks including setting up a health surveillance program. They suspended activity at 12 Australia Pacific LNG drill rig sites that were operating at the time and quarantined 160 well sites that had potentially used affected NUTPLUG during drilling activities. These immediate precautionary actions were conducted to safeguard employees, contractors, landholders and the environment.

Titan Services/Atlas Drilling engaged Sonic HealthPlus' Specialised Services Unit to assist with the situation by:

  • Providing health risk communication to the affected employees and contractors to inform them asbestos health monitoring was not necessary and to reassure them that they were unlikely to have experienced any health effects. 
  • The Upstream Operator (Origin) consulted with leading occupational specialists in potential asbestos risks to human health. Dr Keith Adam (Occupational and Environmental Physician and now Chief Medical Officer for Sonic HealthPlus) was engaged as a leading expert on asbestos health risks.
  • Dr Adam advised that white (chrysotile) asbestos presented a lower health risk compared with other asbestos types because the lung is better able to clear these fibres. Further medical advice from a range of other external experts confirmed that the risk was very low for the vast majority of activities undertaken by the workforce (contractors and employees).
  • On 21 April 2014, Dr Adam was engaged to implement an accredited and independent health program which was limited to the workers completing a screening questionnaire for asbestos exposure with the option to contact the Occupational Physician with any concerns.

Challenges

  • Flying an Occupational and Environmental Physician from Brisbane to Chinchilla at short notice was challenging.  The company hired a private jet.
  • The product had already been used by twelve Origin Energy drilling rigs exposing workers to the product. 
  • Providing workers with timely, factual and evidence based information on the risks was critical to reducing staff concerns. 
  • Ensuring all airborne and surface testing of rigs showed no traces of asbestos and were verified as safe and cleared to resume operations.
  • Creating a health surveillance program at short notice and speaking to concerned workers before/after the assessment was beneficial in reducing levels of anxiety.

Key Learnings

  • Having a trusted relationship with your clients is key.
  • The ability to draw upon a range of medical experts on staff who could be mobilised quickly to regional and remote areas was key to delivering the service needed in this case, with urgency. 
  • Drawing upon skilled communicators with expertise can help organisations overcome many difficulties.  Engaging the expertise of the Specialised Services Unit can provide companies with the knowledge needed to assist in managing a potential health crisis.  
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