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Maintaining Quality Amid the Pandemic

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Distribution Pipeline Industry Comes Together to Overcome Hurdles

When the gas distribution pipeline industry faces a challenge, it finds a way to get the job done and maintain its highest standard of quality, safety and integrity.

Despite challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, quality control and operator qualification efforts remained top priorities for industry stakeholders, according to Brad Heck, compliance director for Miller Pipeline, an Artera company. With founding support from the Distribution Contractors Association (DCA), Heck also helped spearhead the Operator Qualification Integrity Process (OQIP), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, for which he currently serves as vice president.

The OQIP task force was created in 2016 to investigate whether and how the industry could improve the operator qualification (OQ) process and provide more consistency in compliance with OQ programs. The OQIP website (oqip.org) hosts a number of resources for the industry on federal OQ regulations adopted into the Code of Federal Regulations (i.e., 49 CFR Part 192, Subpart N and 49 CFR Part 195, Subpart G), which require pipeline operators to document that certain employees have been adequately trained to recognize and react to abnormal operating conditions that may occur while performing specific tasks, as well as to assess each employee performing functions on the pipeline to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and abilities.

Heck explains that OQIP is “a group of industry professionals that got together to identify what can we do to raise the bar, going above the minimums established by regulation, and establish industry best practices with a common, standardized approach.” In addition to the DCA, the group encompasses all sectors of the industry, including operators, service providers, contractors, consultants, state regulatory bodies and many gas trade associations.

Because OQ is a federal requirement, Heck says there was no question about whether these measures would continue during the pandemic — it was just a question of how? Organizations must ensure that employees are maintaining their credentials and being re-evaluated as needed.

“With OQ, you can’t neglect them. They have to go on because they’re regulatory mandated,” Heck says. “You have to make sure you have knowledgeable and skilled people working in the field. Like a pilot on an airliner, you wouldn’t want someone in the cockpit that was not aware of what to do when certain situations arise. I would say pipeline systems are the same. Both systems could become catastrophic if you don’t have qualified individuals performing those functions.”

Heck calls OQ one of the elements inside of pipeline safety management.

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“You simply have to find ways to make that happen,” he says. “You can’t substitute it. That would be a hard ding in our armor. We constantly have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we walking the walk and doing what we say we’re going to do when it comes to safety, quality and integrity in our industry?’”

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As for quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) initiatives, Heck says these efforts were also a priority to distribution operators and contractors. QA/QC is another part of following the American Petroleum Institute’s Recommended Practice 1173 (RP 1173), the industry’s standard pertaining to pipeline safety management systems (SMS).

While OQ and QA/QC are two distinct and unique disciplines, Heck says that they are tied together with many other elements of RP 1173 in the industry’s efforts to ensure safety, quality and integrity within its operations.

“One thing that is fair to say, as the last 18 months have shown, QA/QC, OQ and safety management systems were all impacted to some degree by the pandemic,” Heck says. “Organizations were able to find alternate ways to meet safety and quality standards in the field, and the end result is that they achieved that without impacting integrity or falling behind, and they were able to safeguard their operations while minimizing and/or eliminating their people being afflicted with COVID.”

Some organizations found novel methods of achieving OQ and QA/QC standards by harnessing technology to complete inspections or testing, Heck says. Groups such as the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) played a big role in exploring the use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to conduct tasks. Video was another technology that some companies used when in-person evaluation was not possible.

“With QA/QC, a lot of it is putting facilities in place. COVID slowed down some of the face-to-face activities, but I don’t think it has slowed down the actual output of what companies are trying to achieve,” Heck says. “This industry is very resilient. Whenever hurdles are placed in front of us, we find new ways to meet the challenges.”

Heck emphasizes that QA/QC is essential to the industry.

“All that we do in the industry has to have a high standard of quality,” he says. “Our industry is heavily process oriented. Are we following those standards and processes, and are we fulfilling the processes that we laid out to do? We can’t ignore that.”

Heck adds that facing challenges like the pandemic are when QA/QC processes are most critical.

“Those are things that have to go on when we have something like COVID,” he says. “That’s when our procedures shine. That’s how we make sure that even though there’s a bump in the road or a hurdle in front of us, we stay focused on quality. That’s why we do it and how we make sure we have safety, quality and integrity in our industry.”

QA/QC is an ongoing, everyday event, Heck adds.

“Safety, quality and integrity is the end result of the daily activities performed,” he says. “People have to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and abilities every day and on every job.”

While the pandemic didn’t stop the industry from completing OQ and QA/QC tasks, there were a number of adjustments organizations had to make to address safety. Distribution contractors and service providers interact with people on a regular basics, Heck says, which meant adhering to a number of protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“That means not coming into work with any symptoms of infection, taking one’s temperatures prior to coming into work and making sure we don’t have those red flags,” he says. “If you do, stay home, don’t come in. And once you’re at work, making sure we keep surfaces clean and disinfected, use hand sanitizer, make sure to stay 6 ft apart, mask up and protect ourselves and those around us.”

While Heck says he heard of some delays on projects, but by in large there was not a significant impact to productivity in the industry.

“In some cases, there was a realization, perhaps, of working more efficiently than we used to,” Heck says. “There were some good things to come from all this, with interacting with customers and getting on the same page with them to complete jobs. It was not as detrimental as some people initially believed it might have been.”

Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at bkramer@benjaminmedia.com.

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