Brazil’s offshore oil workers chilled by coronavirus outbreaks

A worker walks on the heliport at the Brazil's Petrobras P-66 oil rig in the offshore Santos basin in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

On Friday, May 1, two workers on the PXA-1 offshore platform owned by Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras checked into the facility’s infirmary complaining of headaches and fever-like symptoms.

Another Petrobras employee fell visibly ill the following day, three workers from the platform told us.

The sickness spread further in the subsequent days, stoking anxiety among the 45 workers onboard, all but one of whom later tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the local union.

While all have since recovered, the three workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said they are deeply embittered because they believe Petrobras failed to take now-standard precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, like testing workers before they went onboard rigs or providing them high-quality masks.

The three workers and Paolo Valterson, the local union’s health director, questioned why the workers were not evacuated to the nearby city of Fortaleza in northeastern Brazil until four days after the first ones exhibited symptoms. They were quarantined in a hotel in the city for 15 days, according to Valterson.

In recent months, NYK Daily has found, the coronavirus has hit oil production and exposed Petrobras, which employs more than 45,000 people and is Latin America’s largest company by most measures, to possible legal problems.

As of mid-June, federal prosecutors had opened 25 coronavirus-related investigations into the Rio de Janeiro-based company’s conduct at maritime facilities alone, according to information obtained through a public information request.

Local prosecutors said in a statement they have opened a probe into the incident on the PXA-1 platform.

In response to our questions about the outbreak and legal investigations, Petrobras said it has been in discussions with authorities to show that its health and safety measures are “among the most rigorous adopted in the oil industry.”

The company, formally known as Petroleo Brasileiro SA (PETR4.SA), confirmed that a coronavirus outbreak had occurred on the PXA-1 platform, but did not disclose the number of infections.

Petrobras told us that all the crew had disembarked from the platform, without specifying a date. The company said it had administered more than 70,000 tests among its employees and subcontractors across the country.

But that has not kept the virus from ripping through Brazil’s roughly 155 offshore oil platforms, according to an analysis of public and confidential data and conversations with doctors, workers, executives and government officials.

Brazil had registered 1,427 confirmed coronavirus cases among offshore oil workers as of July 10, according to ANP, the country’s oil regulator. That means around 3% of all workers in the sector have contracted the virus, which is about six times the average incidence in Brazil, home to the worst outbreak in Latin America.

In a previously undisclosed development, two major oil platforms that are owned by Japanese firm Modec Inc (6269.T) and produce oil for Petrobras – the Cidade de Mangaritiba and the Cidade de Angra dos Reis – stopped work in May due to coronavirus outbreaks, ANP told us.

Data from the regulator show production at the two platforms in May was down roughly 125,000 barrels per day from February levels, a difference equivalent to 4.5% of Brazil’s total output.

Petrobras declined to comment on the incidents.

Modec confirmed the production halts, saying they were designed to protect workers. The oil services firm said it strictly controls access to offshore facilities and tests all employees for the coronavirus before they embark.

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