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Tackling the safety culture challenge

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Oilfield Technology,

The Piper Alpha disaster on July 6, 1988, marked a turning point in the oil and gas industry worldwide. Peter Conner, Mintra Training Portal, UK, looks at how managing the human factors, which contributed to the tragedy are even more important in today’s globalised offshore environment.

Over the last 40 years there have been several high profile accidents in the oil and gas industry that have left a permanent scar on the industry’s psyche, which never can – nor should – be forgotten.

The scale and intensity of incidents in the oil and gas upstream sector can be enormous. While the industry continues to make significant strides in adopting new techniques, when incidents of any scale do happen, they inevitably raise the question about whether regulatory safety measures go far enough in tackling the question of competency.

The factors contributing to each disaster are varied and far-reaching, however, human errors and technical weaknesses are often causative factors.

Staggeringly, human error accounts for 91% of incidents in the oil and gas sector. A lot of this comes down to workers not being fully aware of exactly why they have been trained to do something a certain way or the consequences that could follow if they do not follow the guidelines.

A lot of people work under a false sense of security and carry out their job without knowing the logic behind the rules and regulations. If people are not aware of the risks and the knock on effects that come with not doing something as they were trained, then they will look for the quickest and simplest way, not the safest.

As the industry looks to employ more than 15 000 over the next 4 - 5 years, building strong safety cultures has never been so important. There is no greater goal than protecting the lives of those working in the industry.

Even with a strong safety culture a serious accident can still happen. What is important to note is that the chances of it happening are significantly reduced when the culture reflects a true commitment to safe working.

When looking back at the Piper Alpha disaster, it took just 22 minutes for the massive leakage of gas condensate and the explosions that followed to claim the lives of 167 people in what is one of the worst offshore disasters to ever happen.

It is believed that the leak came from pipe work connected to a condensate pump. A safety valve had been removed from this pipe work for overhaul and maintenance. The pump itself was undergoing maintenance work and when the pipe work from which the safety valve had been removed was pressurised at start-up, the leak occurred.

The Cullen Report made 106 recommendations. A critical element of this revolved around Control of Work after it emerged open work orders related to the valve had not been communicated properly during a shift change on the platform.

This simple error and the devastating results that followed demonstrate just how vital clear communication and an understanding of risk are within the industry.

All of Lord Cullen’s recommendations were accepted by the sector with a determination borne of never wanting to see an incident of Piper Alpha’s scale happen again. Safety is now at the heart of everything the industry does but training and compliance – no matter how stringent – do not equate to competency.

“Why am I doing this? Because the checklist tells me to” is a phrase that could lead to a false sense of security and should have no place in the industry. The worrying truth is that many of the measures introduced in the last 25 years in an effort to improve safety may indeed reduce the likelihood of an incident but they do not rule it out entirely.

It is vital that everyone throughout the oil and gas chain thinks about and fundamentally understands the reasons for their actions; and every worker whatever their job has the tools, confidence and communication skills needed to speak up and react to a changing environment where simple human error can have drastic consequences.

Safety culture can be enhanced by positive reinforcement of superior safety performance. Identifying people who are doing things right and rewarding their safe actions has a greater impact than punishing employees for doing things wrong.

Traditional versus innovative

Traditional training is only part of the answer. Creating a workforce of box tickers is not enough to properly identify and reduce risk: the focus must be on creating a culture.

Creating a strong safety culture helps reduce incidents and keeps employees safe, ultimately creating a more sustainable business. Engaged leadership, the ability to diagnose issues and act to correct them, and the supportive and collaborative nature of an interdependent safety organisation spill over into broader organisational effectiveness.

Some may argue that this culture already exists and in many companies that is indeed the case. However, oil and gas is an increasingly global industry where workers with a North Sea background work cheek by jowl with colleagues from different organisations, different countries and different cultures.

Consider: how many offshore workers, who spend their days bound by safety rules and regulations, go to the effort of wearing safety goggles when carrying out some basic DIY work around the house?

While the wider consequences may not be the same, the risks to personal safety are. A simplistic example yes, but an effective illustration of the difference between people carrying out an action because they are told to do it and being driven by instinct and in-bedded culture.

When getting into a car, one of the first things people do is put on a seatbelt because they are aware of the increased risks of driving without one. This is something that is drummed in to everyone when learning how to drive, but people do it because we know that wearing one could save their lives and the lives of others.

Communication and regulation can fail but if safety is embedded into the culture at a basic level, exposure to risk is reduced.

Creating a culture

The industry invests millions every year in training to mitigate risk and improve safety.

With the industry’s rapid growth in recent years this has brought new people into the workforce and has increased the need for training and efforts to instil a safety culture.

When actions become routine practice however, there is a danger that they simply stop being effective. Paperwork is a case in point. Considered by many to be a time consuming but necessary chore, viewed in that way there is a risk that people lose sight of why they have to complete this form or that work order and it becomes one step removed from the very real reason it is there in the first place – to eliminate risk and keep people safe.

How can reach everyone, both those in technical offshore roles and others in onshore office-based professions, be reached and have same cultural ethos instilled into everything they do?

The answer is simple. As well as undergoing traditional classroom training, people have to be given the opportunity to put that training into the job environment in a safe and controlled way.

Piper Alpha taught the industry a severe lesson. What is vital is that those lessons continue to be taught but are done so in a safe environment and followed through in the workplace with the support of senior management.

The industry has to teach people to think, every time, about why they are doing something and the risks that come with it. Facilitated workshops are a powerful tool in helping workers share knowledge and better understand the implications of their actions.

In using this approach, learning becomes a process rather than an event that once complete, is marked on a checklist and behaviour continues as normal because ‘that’s the way it has always been done.’

We also have to equip the workforce with the skills to communicate effectively so they can positively influence others around them.

For a safety effort to succeed, everyone — even those at the highest levels — must demonstrate a visible commitment to safety in everything they do.

Employees and contractors always look to see how business leaders personally embody their commitment to safety rather than relying on posters that are hung on the walls or procedures that remain on paper.

Rising to the challenge

The oil and gas industry is facing an interesting challenge. Rising energy demand necessitates the recruitment of thousands of new people over the next few years. A constricted talent pool, especially for mid-experience workers, means the industry is having to cast its net wider than ever before to meet its recruitment needs.

With an increase in the number of new or inexperienced worker entering the field – and an increased demand on existing workers – it is more important than ever before that we look to embed safety in our work culture.

Making this shift may not be without its challenges but creating the environment where workers go home safely at the end of every shift is a prize that is worth fighting for.

Adapted by David Bizley

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