Safety Factors of Offshore Drilling Accidents

The following article, written by Dr. Marios Patsoules, focuses on technical issues surrounding errors that may cause a major offshore accident such as the Deepwater Horizon and concludes that the “Human Factor” is one of the most important factors to be taken into consideration. This article is part of a series of articles discussing the infrastructures that are required in order to minimize accidents on offshore platforms.

2013.06.20 - Safety Factors of Offshore Drilling Accidents Figure 1

As common industry practice dictates, lessons learned from offshore platforms accidents have been studied in depth from various scientific and technological stakeholders, of the international oil industry in order to identify and highlight the root causes that led to the tragic accident of the Deepwater Horizon.

Throughout the world, countless scientists and persons involved in the oil and gas industry have studied the root causes that led to the largest oil spill in the history of the United States, caused by offshore drilling operations, with the Macondo well being operated on a consecutive basis for 87 days. A series of human errors and serious defects resulted in 11 people losing their lives; others to throw themselves overboard in a sea of 6 °С temperature, in an effort to save their lives, while others suffered serious psychological problems from what they experienced during that disastrous day. During the day of the accident 126 persons were working onboard the platform.

One of the most powerful and respected Trade Unions in the World (Industry Energi Norway), with which the author of this article had the opportunity, as a member of the Panhellenic Federation of Employees in Petroleum Refineries and Chemical Industry, to be on the same negotiating table in Brussels during the procedures for a proposal of safety standards for the offshore oil and gas operations, has developed a very important study highlighting findings, of great significance, which must be taken into consideration not only from the oil industry but also from countries which are supposed to be the major players controlling such activities. From these findings anyone involved in the offshore oil and gas industry should be taught, so as to diligently and appropriately implement, the regulations required during offshore operations, in order to avoid accidents that can cost human lives directly or indirectly as a result of environmental implications.

One important message that the author of this article would like to pass to all involved stakeholders, is that the oil and gas industry has the solutions and the sources required to cope with such accidents. Simply put, the industry is in no need to request state or other type of external funding. The oil and gas industry has more than enough funds needed for such issues. Just imagine a hole in the ground that spits out money for 30 years. And there are tens of thousands of such holes that do not require funds from any congress or ministry. Therefore solutions in coping accidents existed for many years and they are continuously improved. Of course such solutions are not always published because they represent intellectual property and technological expertise for sale.

For example, 30 years ago the Norwegians “battled” sea oil spills using oil eating bacteria, which were also “boosted” with special fertilizers in order to increase their bacterial oil eating effects. Today the available technologies have been further developed and diversified. For example one oil spill cleaning method may include the use of magnetic particles while another may apply nanotechnology.

2013.06.20 - Safety Factors of Offshore Drilling Accidents Figure 2

Aerial view of the oil spill that was caused from the Deepwater Horizon Accident.

During the last few years, mainly as a result of the Greek economic crisis, extensive discussions and speculations have been made regarding offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation in Greece (e.g. in the Aegean and/or Ionian Sea). So the following question arises: “Do we have in our country, in Greece, the infrastructure required for coping with an oil spill accident? Not only for an oil spill caused from an oil drilling platform, but also for an oil spill caused by the hundreds of tankers travelling in the Aegean sea, where an important part of Greece’s tourist industry is located?”

Not to be misunderstood, it is not the author’s intention to imply that Greece should quit from oil and gas exploration activities, activities which are considered dangerous by many. On the contrary the question stated above aims in highlighting that Greece should become knowledgeable of the offshore technology and very cautious in its implementation, always following to the point applicable standards, regulations and industry practices. We are currently and we will be in the future dependent on oil and therefore as a country we should become recognized “players” in the international scene, now that eventually the challenge of offshore oil and gas exploitation is closer than ever and ‘knocking on our door”.

Therefore in an effort to inform the average reader on which factors the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon were focused, a summary of these causes are presented below:

  • Serious defects of the Safety system.
  • Lack of modern and tested equipment (the equipment on the platforms was characterized as cheap and not well maintained)
  • Lack of technical knowledge of the personnel
  • Lack of secondary equipment for managing the well in case of damage or accident, as well as for safety reasons.
  • Lack of continuous maintenance of the equipment.
  • Lack of planning and lack of experience in handling hazards.
  • Non-existent or insufficient system for taking immediate decisions on the implementation of procedures for handling hazards.
  • Inoperable safety alarms and safety systems that were either cut off or experienced malfunctions.
  • Inadequate Blow Out Preventer (BOP) system management
  • Safety was not top priority for the company, excessive profit was valued higher as a job objective, mainly by the company’s decision in giving bonuses for achieving higher profits.
  • Lack of special safety barriers on preventing hurling objects, in case of an explosion, to hit working personnel.
  • Inadequate training of personnel regarding safety issues.

Essentially there were many ways to avoid or minimize the overall outcome of the accident but due to inadequacies, deficiencies and omissions caused by the “human factor”, nothing worked the way it should work.

Due to all the above and after a relevant study that was assigned to the Panhellenic Federation of Employees in Petroleum Refineries and Chemical Industry as well as relevant discussions with colleagues in Brussels, we reached the conclusion that the primary factor upon which the safety of offshore operations depends is the “Human Factor”, which includes the entire range of human resources aspects, from the last worker up to the Top Management.

Before presenting the reasons which led us to the abovementioned conclusion, one thing that must be highlighted and given special attention, both to the State, and to the top management of the companies which invest enormous amounts of money and undertake such difficult activities, is the fact that the workers’ Trade Unions can contribute a lot in regards of correct operation of safety systems in these dangerous but important activities. Simply put, all the equipment and machinery in such operations are being handled by members of the workers’ Trade Unions, who are directly and practically interested for their health and safety. Apart from this, they are also the only ones who have substantial knowledge on the weaknesses and possible malfunctions of the systems they are operating.

Recent studies from industry professionals and scientists involved in the offshore industry revealed that incidents, on various scales, were 48.6% of the times caused by the “Human Factor”, which represents the greatest challenge to face, in terms of safety, in the upstream industry during the present and in the future as well. In the past decades the safety of workers on offshore operations was mainly addressed through technology, automation, safety measures and the functionality of Safety Management Systems. For example as soon as a gas detector detected a gas leak, then automatically the safety system would be activated so as to prevent any undesirable consequences.

In other similar situations, studies have shown that 90% percent of the accidents were caused mainly by the “Human Factor”. It is also proven that no matter how extensive automated safety systems may be, prevention of accidents in such particularly harsh environments of autonomy and isolation, depend on the reliability, experience, expertise and the conscientiousness of the “Human Factor”.

What we found from the above analysis is that from an optimized safety management system of offshore operations, characterized by extremely difficult conditions of work, what is missing (when an accident occurs) from the philosophy and area of application of such operations is a “Human Factor” distinguished by what we call safety awareness and of course the implementation of good practices. Of course, it might be expected (but not justified) from a company that has invested millions of dollars, to try to cut edges. But a country/state responsible for providing licenses for offshore oil and gas exploration and production has absolutely no excuse to not contribute at equal proportions in the planning and control of an offshore project. So, in order for a state to be able to provide the necessary infrastructure, which requires a considerable amount of time to be appropriately set and implemented, the long term and at the same time continuous training, as well as study and analysis of incident investigations, should be prepared well in advance.

If we want to create new job positions, a country willing to get involved and become a respected player in the offshore oil industry, should as soon as possible formalize specific work groups that will be staffed be relevant industry bodies and experienced scientists, engineers etc in order to properly address the matter of offshore safety. Let’s not forget that the aim of such actions and initiatives is to drastically reduce, if not vanish, accidents that occur due to human errors as well as any possible environmental implications. Another aspect of the above is to inform in a documented and appropriate way, local society groups of the country in order to avoid reactions from “radical” and in some occasions “manipulated” environmentalists that might overturn investment plans of millions of euros, for no particular and objectively based reason.

From the author’s experience, both England and Norway, for over 40 years, have established detailed regulations that apply to offshore operations. These regulations are being implemented on day to day activities and are revised when technological advancements occur or whenever omissions are detected in order to ensure that they are always up to date ensuring overall safety. This procedure is kept “alive” since these countries’ governments have taken actions, having also the consent of the workers’ Trade Unions, to implement on a continual basis training programs and lifelong learning procedures of personnel working in governmental positions related to the industry. The practices implemented by the countries mentioned above should serve as an example to any country willing to get involved in the offshore oil and gas industry.

The article is written by Dr. Marios Patsoules, Geologist, Reservoir Engineer at Hellenic Petroleum S.A., Senior Consultant for Occupational Safety in Offshore Operations/Oil Platforms.

A version of this article in Greek can be found in capital.gr

The article is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

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