Over-Engineering Safety?

2013 marks the 25th anniversary of one of Britain’s most tragic oil and gas incidents. The explosion that destroyed the Piper Alpha production platform in the North Sea in July 1988, killed 167 men and changed the way that the UK approached industry safety altogether. The anniversary of this sobering event is causing the British oil and gas industry to evaluate the progress it has made in safety and risk over the past quarter-century, and the participants in a GL Noble Denton’s roundtable discussion that took place during last March 2013 offered strong views on how far the sector has come.

2013.09.17 - Over-Engineering Safety

According to a senior underwriter from a well-known British insurance firm “The UK’s approach to safety has evolved dramatically since Piper Alpha, but, the level of risk that we’re up against hasn’t changed. Particularly in the North Sea, we’re seeing greater risks from ageing assets. While technology helps to mitigate this, we’ll never be able to get rid of human error.”

Others suggested that the growing complexity of today’s oil and gas assets and the “over-complication” of the modern processes could cause an “instruction overload” that increases the risk of human error, rather than reducing it.

“Oil and gas companies need to make sure that their approach to communicating their health and safety strategies is kept very simple. The industry is in danger of reversing into ‘corporate speak’ when it talks about safety, and the impact of what we’re trying to achieve is then lost,” stated the departmental head of a utilities company.

“Sometimes, it seems like industry leaders are so focused on talking about slips, trips and falls, that the real meaning of a strong safety culture and calculated risk falls by the wayside,” added a senior advisor from a shipping company.

“Nowadays, lost-time incidents have become a performance indicator by which oil and gas professionals measure their bonuses. The impact of the reality behind them has gone, as the little problems we used to encounter are engineered out of the industry. Little problems are no longer tolerated, so the industry is numb to the impact they can cause. This just paves the way for bigger problems, like Piper Alpha and Macondo, to occur more easily.”

Another participant agreed, citing the example of an executive team in a large company whose bonuses were measured entirely against their ability to reduce lost-time incidents. This resulted in an overly-cautious approach to operations and a related dip in productivity.

Just as the UK’s oil and gas regulatory framework was restructured in the wake of the Piper Alpha incident, industry legislation is undergoing significant change in the US following the Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The move has sparked strong industry debate over best practice in developing regulation and sharing risk.

“The Macondo incident has changed everyone’s view of the oil and gas industry. Probably more so than Piper Alpha did 25 years ago,” said a technical authority from an international operator. “It’s revealed the balance that needs to be struck between operators and suppliers when it comes to taking responsibility for safety and risk.”

“Regardless of the regulatory environment in which you’re working, it must be up to the operator to lay down the rules of engagement within its supply chain in order to secure best practice in safety,” said a senior engineering manager from an oil major. “If operators lay down the standard to which they will work, their suppliers – and to an extent the authorities of the countries in which they operate – will follow. But it must be up to the operator to lead the way in setting safety standards.”

Others agreed and suggested that operators are already taking greater responsibility for their suppliers’ activities by building a higher reliance on quality assurance and centralised safety control. Despite this, participants in GL Noble Denton’s roundtable discussion seemed less than confident that the sector is learning effectively from past catastrophic events. Those who were asked whether the industry is safer as a result of the Piper Alpha incident admitted that they didn’t know, while others suggested that there is a probability that a Macondo-like incident could reoccur.

This is an abstract from GL Noble Denton white paper “A New Reality” based on a roundtable discussion, regarding oil and gas industry trends, that took place in London in March 2013. The material is posted here with the author’s kind permission.

GL Noble Denton is a world class technical service provider for the oil and gas industry, helping to design, build, install and operate oil and gas onshore, maritime and offshore assets to ensure safety, sustainability and superior value.

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