One of the biggest challenges to oil and gas exploration in the Arctic will be keeping workers alive in the event of an evacuation. Successful escape from a rig or vessel is simply not enough – the unforgiving northern environment can be an even greater threat to human safety. The NRC Institute for Ocean Technology has been addressing this issue for the past decade, researching the survivability of humans in lifeboats, life rafts and immersion suits. The functionality of lifesaving equipment in sub-zero conditions is one factor, but human response to those conditions is another, poorly understood, issue.

As part of a four-year project, researchers are exploring ergonomic and performance considerations associated with lifeboat habitability and piloting. Air quality, space and temperature are just a few of the factors being examined in equipment that is constructed to standards that have been unchanged for nearly a century.

The offshore industry and regulatory groups are beginning to realize that standards must be updated, particularly for harsh and remote locations. The Institute has been working with ABS, Transport Canada, and a range of other partners to address these needs. It has, for example, produced a “knowledge book” for engineers and designers, created guidelines for companies planning activities in the Arctic, and developed a technical statement of requirements for the next generation of Arctic evacuation craft. Researchers have also compiled the world’s largest database of performance studies of escape, evacuation and rescue equipment.

A baseline profile has been established for evacuation system performance as a function of environmental conditions. A systematic series of model and full-scale experiments, using a number of environmental parameters, has produced a set of statistically reliable data. This includes structural loads, propulsion requirements and manoeuvrability of lifeboats in ice; interior light and noise levels, and levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide; as well as data on human thermal regulation and the effectiveness of survival suits in cold water. This latter area of research will impact standards set by regulatory agencies in Canada. Current certification standards require that immersion suits be tested in calm, circulating water in order to gain approval.

However, people in immersion suits in the Arctic will be subjected to more severe weather conditions, including very cold water and high wind speeds. The study is contributing to a better understanding of how the thermal properties of suits, and their effects on the human body, change with varying weather conditions.

The NRC Institute for Ocean Technology is also currently working with many national and international organizations on factors that will affect a mass evacuation in the Arctic. The research is focused on thermal protection for the Arctic marine environment, personal protection product development, performance of personal flotation devices, and correlation of immersion suit protection between humans and thermal manikins.

These extensive studies are addressing whether lifesaving equipment meets existing IMO and SOLAS regulations, and how the standards need to be adjusted for Arctic application. The information will be invaluable to companies engaged in exploration and development in the Arctic Ocean.

For more information
Frank Dormody
Research Business Officer
(709) 772-8433

Antonio Simões Ré
Senior Research Officer
(709) 772-0914