Venezuelan health and safety worker dies in industrial incident at shore base facility

– work suspended

The shore base
The shore base

Less than a week after Stabroek News reported that flooded foundation piles and sheet piles opening had added to the delay in the readiness of the Vreed-en-Hoop Shorebase Inc (VEHSI) artificial island project in Region Three, work has been suspended following a fatal incident.

The dead man has been identified as 36-year-old Health and Safety worker Rusbel Jesus Rengel Azocar, of San Felix, Venezuela. He was at the time employed by subcontractor Gas Total Solution Inc.

“At approximately 18:40 hrs on February 10th, 2024, there was an industrial accident at the Vreed-En-Hoop shorebase. This resulted in a fatality, which unfortunately, claimed the life of a foreign national working with a subcontractor,” the company said in a statement, after being  contacted by this newspaper yesterday.

“The police and immediate family were informed. An investigation has been launched and work at the facility was suspended. Vreed-En-Hoop Shorebase Inc regrets this unfortunate loss of life and offers the family its condolences and support,” it added.

It is unclear for how long the work will be suspended and how this impacts the already delayed timeline for the handing over of the project.

Last week, Stabroek News reported that flooded foundation piles had added to the delay in the readiness of the artificial island project.  Sheet piles had also opened up causing sand to pour out of several areas.

VEHSI had declined to comment despite several requests by Stabroek News. ExxonMobil which is to use the shore base had also declined to comment saying that it was for VEHSI to do so.

Minister of Labour Joseph Hamilton was contacted after VEHSI confirmed the death and he said that his ministry was unaware of the incident. Shortly after, he said that an officer was dispatched to investigate. Later in the afternoon, the ministry issued a statement.

“The Ministry of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Department has launched an investigation into a fatal accident which occurred around 18:40 hrs on Saturday February 10, at the Vreed-en-Hoop Shore Base construction site, Best Foreshore, Region Three (Essequibo Islands-West Demerara).The deceased has been identified as 36-year-old Health and Safety Helper, Mr Rusbel Jesus Rengel Azocar, of San Felix, Venezuela. He was at the time employed by subcontractor Gas Total Solution Inc,” the statement said.

“According to reports received from the company, Azocar was engaged in the task of placing a barrier around a hole with water on the southern half of the site’s quay wall. During the process, he fell into the hole,” it added. “Eyewitnesses alleged that Azocar was not wearing a life jacket at the time of his fall, despite a mandate to wear same on the quay wall to prevent drowning.”

It also pointed out that the quay wall slab demolition work had been suspended.

In a country where there is currently a boom of infrastructural work in both the public and private sector, the ministry expressed growing concern over injuries and accidents which occur on job sites.

“The OSH department continues to reiterate the importance of adhering to workplace health and safety regulations to mitigate the likelihood of workplace accidents,” the statement said.

Having acknowledged the distress it causes for the loved ones of the deceased, the statement said that Hamilton extended heartfelt sympathy to the affected family, colleagues, and friends.

At present, both the Ministry of Labour and the Guyana Police Force are conducting investigations.

According to the police, enquiries revealed that Azocar was placing cones and danger tape around a hole “as a signal to warn others of the hazard but unfortunately he fell into the hole himself.”

The hole, according to the police, had water several feet in depth. “Azocar, who was found in the hole facing head down, presumably drowned. Some witnesses activated the emergency response immediately but unfortunately, Azocar could not be rescued in time by his emergency response colleagues. The body was taken to the West Demerara Regional Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival by a doctor on duty. The body was then escorted to the Ezekiel Funeral Home, awaiting a post-mortem examination to determine the cause of death,” the statement said.

The first phase of the project was expected to be completed by December last year but sources said that there will now be a two-month delay in that aspect, given the technicalities of the work programme and other factors relating to construction.

This newspaper had reached out to the company for insight into engineering and other work done here, including an overall update of the project but was told, “There will be no comment from the company at this time.”

In its first phase, the project is expected to add more than 44 acres to Guyana’s coastline. Phase one of the project is meant to be the special purpose vehicle to serve as a SURF (Subsea, Umbilicals, Riser, and Flow lines) Shorebase for projects of ExxonMobil’s subsidiary, Esso Exploration and Production Guyana Limited.

Some 10 acres were to be made operational by December 2023, with additional acreages delivered by the second quarter of this year. It could mean that this year’s timeline will also suffer setbacks. The long-term vision of the project will see the full port of Vreed-en-Hoop completed with as much as 800 acres of port facilities.

The last update from the company was in early November of last year when VEHSI had the docking and offloading of the first commercial vessel at its man-made island facility. The MV Virtuous Striker became the first commercial vessel to dock at the newly constructed facility and at the same time was registered as the longest vessel, at over 190 meters, to ever enter the Demerara River Channel. Additionally, with a cargo of over 26,900 metric tonnes it was one of the largest payloads to ever be offloaded, according to the company.

The company did not say if the cargo was related to the infrastructural works that it was undertaking at the facility. However, the docking and offloading of the vessel marked a major milestone for the 44-acre facility.

‘More Appropriate’

Stabroek News was told by sources that some foundation pipes were flooded by water and this would necessitate a delay of months in terms of readiness. Sheet piles had also opened up causing sand to pour out of several areas. This required remedial work which will be added to the US$300 million price tag.

ExxonMobil last week had said they were aware of the delay, when this newspaper queried. Asked if the company was given reasons for the delay, Country Manager Alistair Routledge said that they had but he believed that since it is VEHSI’s development, they should be the ones to share that information.

“We work with them very closely on the project; on completion. So we are working with them. I just think it’s more appropriate that they talk about their project. We are like a tenant, if you like, in that project. We do have a long term lease but ultimately though, they are the developers. I think it is more appropriate that they tell you what happened,” he stated.

“Of course! Yes,” the ExxonMobil Country Manager responded when asked if he was told of the reason.

“We have regular meetings with them so we are fully informed about what is happening. I think that it is important that whatever transactional relationship you have that the parties are transparent, because if one side has a problem, how do we help mitigate those issues and that is what we have been able to do. We have a very open working relationship with the VEHSI shareholders. I think it is more appropriate they tell you because it is their project.”

Much of the equipment, Routledge disclosed, was brought from Trinidad and Tobago to Georgetown. ExxonMobil is scaling down much of its operations in the twin-island republic, as this country’s capacity increases.

“We are working with the developers with NRG [Holdings] and Jan De Nul on the finalization of the base. We started moving some of the equipment onto the site that we needed to support the [Stabroek Block] project, particularly Yellowtail [Development]. We are a little bit behind schedule but that is not a problem. We have some work we can execute from the GYSBI shorebase [Guyana Shorebase Inc] in the meantime, until the official base is finished,” he had said.

Routledge also said that ExxonMobil has, “moved substantially everything that we can move out of Trinidad. So what remains being executed in Trinidad are much larger pieces of equipment that are going to be installed offshore, which the draft in the Demerara [River] is not deep enough for that to come in [to a shorebase],” he added.

“That is part of why we have been working on the VEHSI  project was to give us facilities that have a higher load capacity on the east side and a deeper draft . At the moment pretty much everything that we could bring from Guyana to Trinidad we did,” he informed.