Breaking new ground with hands-free working in the oil and gas industry – OHS

While working as an electrician on oil rigs in the North Sea, founder of Offshore Handling Systems in Shannon, Co Clare Eugene Earley recognised the need for a solution to the problem of hand injuries caused by lifting.

“At the time the notion of hands-free working on rigs was a novel concept and only primitive products existed. I came up with the idea of making more useful tools designed for different applications such as moving deck cargo and materials and put together a few designs,” he recalls.

While continuing to work as chief rig electrician for Ensco – the second biggest driller in the world – in 2009 Earley incorporated his new company Offshore Handling Systems and approached Enterprise Ireland for help.

He was accepted as part of the agency’s Innovation Voucher scheme, which connected him to the Industrial Polymer Solutions and Design Centre at Athlone Institute of Technology.

Within 12 months, researcher and designer there Conor Hayes had fine-tuned Earley’s five product ideas and he was put in touch with a company in Athlone, Rotafab, which now looks after the moulding process.

In early 2011, Earley got a second innovation voucher, which he said was needed to make the products look tested and proven. The researchers at the Polymer Institute carried out strength testing to see how long they would last in salt water or high temperatures and all products now have a full test sheet to reinforce their quality.

Focused purely on exports from the outset, Offshore Handling Systems went to market that same year, with Earley using his 13 years’ experience of working on oil rigs and knowledge of who’s who in the industry to win business.

“The notion of hands-free working was taking off by then and no other company was doing anything like what we were doing. I put a few demos together and approached the health and safety guys in the big oil rig companies,” he recalls.

“There were some knock-backs but the big breakthrough came when the third largest driller in the world, Nobel Drilling, agreed to have us fit out its 22 rigs in the Middle East.

“From there within a short period of time we had built up a decent customer base of FTSE 100 companies operating in the likes of Brunai, Australia and South America.”

Until January this year Earley was running the business on his own with his wife Una Kelly, who is a joint director. “Una was a big driver of the company’s development from its concept. She left a HR management position in 2009 to focus on the set up and marketing of the company. She was well placed for this area as her college qualifications were in marketing and company administration.”

He now has a dedicated sales person and a part-time assistant in the unit in Shannon where the final assembly is done.

“I believe in being hands-on. I still go offshore contracting for a refresher the odd time so I get an idea of what’s going on in the industry. As a result we’ve introduced a few more products like access platforms for getting in and out of open baskets safely.”