2020 produced one of the most severe storm and wildfire seasons on record, with 25 separate U.S. disasters resulting in $1 billion in insurance claims each. With 2021 upon us, it’s critical to consider the hazards that oilfield service workers will be asked to wade into before disasters strike.

Imagine a common scenario in which an oilfield service worker encounters a piece of equipment that they haven’t been fully trained on. Under normal circumstances, this scenario might lead to some delay and frustration. Add extreme weather to the mix, and the inability to use a piece of equipment could put her health and safety at risk. After all, information deficits on the front lines have dangerous consequences for oilfield service workers who need updates and instructions they can’t get with a phone call.

With this in mind, shoring up frontline communication resources and practices this storm season (and those to follow) is critical for E&P companies. It’s time to make real progress on digital transformation efforts within the oil and gas industry, starting with frontline workers: the essential employees at the highest risk. Arming these workers with better, more centralized information can improve every task they do. And more importantly, it can help them put their safety first in any scenario.

The Role of Technology in Frontline Communications

When Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Northeast, 70,000 frontline workers traveled into the affected region to help restore services. Each one faced unique obstacles and risks working in their part of the disaster zone that required gaining access to specific pieces of information, whether that was training manuals, geographical information, project updates or something only the office could provide. Remote locations combined with battered infrastructure made it hard for those frontline workers to get the information they needed.

Technology certainly offers a solution, as mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops are natural tools for getting information to widely distributed field workers. However, what’s missing is a solution that links a oilfield worker to the office via those devices, seamlessly shuttling information in both directions.

Once that link exists, conditions improve on both ends: Wherever they are, field workers should have access to whatever information and answers they need to work effectively, efficiently and safely. Likewise, staying connected to field workers helps the office plan, schedule, track and manage dozens (if not thousands) of field service projects happening simultaneously. Instead of calling operators individually or walking them through procedures over the phone, managers have a better way to interface with every operator under their supervision.

The right technology suite makes frontline communications more accessible than ever. Now, it’s up to E&P companies to put one in action.

4 Digital-Forward Ways to Enhance Frontline Communications

To ensure the right information flows seamlessly from the office to anywhere in the field (and back again), use these tools and techniques. In turn, you’ll increase employees’ safety—even in the face of crisis:

1. Shore up your safety materials. A 2019 survey showed 39% more workers were concerned about on-the-job safety than the previous year, so use frontline-oriented technologies to make training and safety materials accessible on-demand. In particular, there should never be any question about how to proceed in a compliant way.

For instance, you might instruct field managers to make videos of someone demonstrating vital protocols (such as how to put on a harness) and upload them to a shared platform so workers can watch them at any time. Besides this, consider implementing “toolbox talks” and safety observations into your operators’ workflows. During toolbox talks, frontline workers meet up to discuss the potential hazards of specific jobs, which is a great way to increase hazard awareness and get everyone on the same page. During the work itself, a supervisor or fellow employee should also monitor and tally the number of unsafe actions or conditions the team encounters. Those safety observations should be discussed with managers after the job is completed.

2. Eliminate information obstacles. For oilfield service to be safe and effective—even in high-risk environments—information needs to flow in all directions without obstacles. That means it travels between different departments, locations and administrative levels with equal flexibility. Resist the urge to rely on top-down information hierarchies, as that will only lead to blind spots.

Instead, prioritize openness and accessibility wherever possible: You can start by implementing and championing the tenets of bottom-up communication within your organization. Two-way communication is crucial and encourages a culture of collaboration, so be sure that information can flow freely from the bottom of an organization and upward as well as across departments, functions and distinct teams. Are operators encouraged to raise their concerns or provide suggestions on areas that could be improved?

3. Digitize wherever you can. Of course, COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation at oil and gas companies: 58% of oil and gas companies in one survey said the pandemic made digital investments more urgent, and the majority plan to invest either significantly or moderately in new technology.

If you’re part of this group, be sure to include frontline communication resources in those efforts. Digitize all the information an operator might need, and do the same for forms they have to fill out. Eliminating tedious manual paperwork ensures that everything is reported on and recorded in the same place, eliminating the many barriers of analog processes.

4. Implement read receipts. Ensuring frontline employees have access to an abundance of information is critical, but it’s equally important to allow managers to see whether operators have seen vital updates or instructions. Communication confirmations identify something as “read” so information issues are less likely to compromise job performance or worker safety. Be sure to integrate this functionality into your operators’ workflows.

The 2021 storm season will arrive during a pandemic that still makes social contact risky, meaning oilfield workers will face no shortage of turmoil this year. Technology—and specifically technology focused on frontline communication—gives them a way to work dynamically in the oil field without compromising safety. Before the forecasts make a turn for the worst, create an information conduit that begins at the office and extends to every E&P operator in the field.

About the Author:

Cristian Grossmann is the CEO and co-founder of Beekeeper, the single point of contact for your frontline workforce.