In the first of our new, occasional section that takes a look at some of the more leftfield employment opportunities in the engineering and technology sectors, we check out Exova Aberdeen’s Materials Testing rapid response team.
Exova is one of the world’s leading providers of laboratory testing covering such industries as aerospace, automotive, food, pharmaceutical, and oil and gas. Exova Aberdeen specialises in materials testing and welding engineering within the oil and gas industry - specifically for the many oil rigs that dot the coast of north east Scotland. In response to changing industry requirements the company has recently launched a dedicated rapid response team ready to react quickly to critical dangers in the North Sea and further afield.
Reacting quickly to critical dangers
Recent changes in legislation such as corporate manslaughter, the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) and the Civil Contingencies Act, have increased pressure on operators in the North Sea to provide measurable response to an incident - from a facility using standardised best practices. But for many of the recently established smaller operators providing an emergency response team from within a smaller workforce has proved a major headache.
“Exova’s rapid response team was set up after lots of requests from clients who don’t have the manpower to establish their own team,” explains response team leader Derek Sharpe. “We have eight fully trained responders who are on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. We attend to emergency situations onsite and offshore, both locally and as far away as Azerbaijan.”
In addition to working with smaller operators the Exova response team frequently deal with issues that arise on rigs that were built before the ultra stringent safety standards of today.
“There are a lot of older rigs out there and they often need repairs,” says Sharpe. “Given quality control wasn’t quite the same 30 years ago as it is now, the rig owners need to know as much about the materials as they can so that’s where we come in.”
What the work involves
The team holds various positions within the company but are all trained in metallurgy and/or non-destructive testing and can carry out a range of tests - usually positive material identification, magnetic particle inspection, dye penetrant inspection, ultra-sonic testing and non-destructive metallurgy (NDM) - to fully inform the client before it goes ahead and does a repair.
“NDM, for example, involves polishing up the material that you want to look at to a very high finish - using techniques like diamond grinding,” explains Sharpe. “Then you run an acid test to identify a particular material. Or you can use a very high magnification microscope to inspect the structure.”
Exova also offers clients a failure testing option, for example; Sharpe’s team may make an imprint of a particular material using special tape - rather like a forensic lab lifts a fingerprint - and then take that sample back to the lab for further analysis at its Aberdeen laboratory - to advise the client as to how to proceed.
“Our job is to report what we find after which, depending on the results, the engineers of the company that has hired us will either take over or ask us for further assistance.”
Training for the high-risk environments they work in
As getting to and from an oil rig involves being transported in a helicopter, often in extreme weather, and the rigs themselves are high-risk environments, each member of Exova’s response team has to be well-versed in all manner of health and safety precautions, which as Sharpe explains involves some fairly heavy duty training.
“To go offshore you have to go on five-day survival course and take part in simulations where they duck you under water in what is basically a big tin can and you have to learn how to escape. Also actual rigs can be very dangerous places - aside from occasionally hanging 200 feet in the air off flare stacks, there are high pressure containment systems everywhere, the constant threat of blowouts and highly flammable gases like H2S about so we have to learn how to work in confined spaces, and to deal with major fires. We also have to be careful what equipment we take offshore as anything that has the potential to cause a spark is strictly forbidden - so laptops are a no-no.”
In addition to standard safety precautions many oil rigs have their own specific health and safety specifications. It’s not unusual for the response team to receive a call in the morning, complete a rig-specific safety course in the afternoon ready to fly offshore the next day.
Surprisingly given this unusual and somewhat adventurous remit Exova Aberdeen’s marketing manager Lisa Hurley is having a hard time finding recruits.
“The type of work we do is quite specialist and there aren’t a lot of people who do it,” she explains. “In the past I have actually contacted the aerospace division of the company to find recruits.”
The problem Hurley feels is that materials testing is not a widely known subject.
“It’s rarely mentioned in schools and even people who have degrees in engineering and materials do not usually have a metallurgy qualification as few universities teach it. Most of the recruits we take on with ONDs, HNDs and degrees we train from scratch to be able to provide the service that our clients require,” says Hurley.
Exova currently has several vacancies at its Aberdeen laboratory so if you fancy a career as a specialist test engineer and as part of a crack emergency response team you know where to head.