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Simple Innovation Makes Big Impact on Oilfield Safety

Practical solution prevents falling and crushing hazards

Hess has earned international recognition for inventing an inexpensive and easy-to-install tool that could save the lives of oilfield workers. Jointly developed by Hess and the Risk Management Tool Box Pty Ltd., a small Western Australia safety consultancy, the innovative solution makes it safer for Hess employees and contractors to work on some of the most commonly used oil pumping units.

The tool edged out 42 other safety inventions to earn the Global Health, Safety and Environment Innovation Award at the 2012 International Conference on Health, Safety and Environment, an event co-sponsored by the Society of Petroleum Engineers and the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association. It’s an important innovation because it makes it safer to work on pump jacks.

Massive pump jacks – also known as nodding donkeys, horse-heads and thirsty birds, as well as other colorful names – have been used for more than a century to provide artificial lift to bring oil from the well to the surface. The bobbing hammerhead-shaped counterweights are iconic symbols of the oilfield.

But there has never been a safe way for workers to stop the pumping units when they perform certain well completions or "work-over" operations. To de-energize the kinetic energy, the pump jack workers had to enter a fenced-in area, climb up onto the back of the unit and place a portion of their body in the downward path of the counterweights.

That is not a safe procedure. Counterweights on pump jacks weigh up to 20,000 pounds and can crush a human body without stopping. Every year statistics show that about one oilfield worker in the U.S. and dozens more worldwide die while performing pump jack work-over operations. Many others are injured.

At Hess shale oil and gas operations in North Dakota alone, we have more than 400 pumping units in use. During routine work on the units, several of our employees began to wonder how to make the operations safer – specifically, they wanted to find a way to eliminate the need to enter the fenced area around the pumping unit while the pump jack is operating. 

Our employees went out to the field to one of our active pumping units, designed a tool and obtained the measurements they needed to build it. They then hired an engineering company to build the innovative device to their specifications, and later adjusted the design until it worked as they had planned.

The result is a major safety improvement: an engineered solution that eliminates a century-old oilfield hazard. The tool works in tandem with the existing brake assist on the units and allows workers to safely stop a pumping unit while staying out of harm's way. The tool takes minutes to install, fits on all of our pumping units and costs only $300 to build. But best of all, it helps keep our people – and employees from other oil companies – safe at their jobs.