Situation Awareness and Safety in Offshore Drill Crews

The following information is a summary from a paper published a few years ago the University of Aberdeen by Anne Sneddon, Kathryn Mearns, Rhona Flin. The paper deals with the subject of situation awareness and safety in offshore drill crews and presents a review of situation awareness in drilling incidents and results from interviews with oil and gas industry drilling personnel regarding situation awareness in this environment.

2013.10.10 - Situation Awareness and Safety in Offshore Drill Crews

Oil and gas industry companies are making every effort to ensure that their accident rates are kept as low as possible. For most industrial accidents, there is a causal chain of organisational conditions and human errors. Human-factor causes can be attributed to 70–80% of accidents in high-hazard industries. One critical factor in preventing accidents is the ability of workers to maintain an adequate understanding of their worksite situation. This means having a high level of awareness of task and environmental conditions, and judging how these may change in the near future to predict how the situation will develop.

The necessary attention skills are referred to as ‘situation awareness’ (SA). This concept has been mainly studied in aviation but in more recent years the concept has been also studied in other industries as well such as aircraft maintenance, maritime operations, nuclear power plants etc. Situation Awareness (SA) is the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of space and time, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future’. SA is divided in the following three levels:

  1. Level 1 SA – Perception. in order for SA to be achieved, the work environment should be continually monitored to encode sensory information and to detect changes in significant stimuli.
  2. Level 2 SA – Comprehension. This involves the combination, interpretation, storage, and retention of the incoming information to form a picture of the situation whereby the significance of objects/events is understood.
  3. Level 3 SA – Projection. The result of the combination of levels 1 and 2 is the ability to correctly forecast possible future circumstances.

Factors influencing workers’ SA may be related to individual differences or to external influences on human performance. Such factors are:

  1. Stress. Stress can result in poor concentration/alertness as a result of an overload on the individual’s cognitive resources. Stressors can be physical, such as vibration, crowding, noise, pollution, temperature, and high/low light levels. Elements which feature predominantly and are virtually inescapable in the harsh offshore environment.
  2. Workload. Unusually low or high workloads can impact on human performance. Low workload can result in boredom with consequent inattentiveness, decreased vigilance, and reduced motivation. Conversely, if the work volume is excessive or the tasks are inordinately complicated, it can mean that employees become ‘caught up’ in attending to particular tasks, or become distracted by other pressing issues to tackle, and so do not apportion adequate time to monitor their situation. In doing so, their SA will be impaired, as they may be unaware of situational changes, and may make inappropriate decisions based on incomplete or incorrect information. Consequently, they may also be unable to react quickly enough should an unforeseen event occur.

Workers’ awareness of their work environment is not always of a high enough quality to ensure safe and efficient operations. Possession and maintenance of good quality situation awareness appears to be of particular importance in the offshore oil and gas industry, where the work is hazardous, time pressured, and can be complex. On board an offshore drilling rig or production platform, the drilling crews are involved in one of the most dangerous activities. The drilling environment can change suddenly and for a drill crew an incorrect decision can cost millions of dollars (in both equipment damage and/or production loss), but safety costs can be far more severe, with the capacity to result in loss of human life.

Accidents analysis in respect of situation awareness

The majority of incidents occurring appear due to errors with the perception level of SA Level 1, i.e. people are failing to correctly perceive the situation. The most common class of error is ‘failure to monitor or observe data,’ which accounted for more than one-quarter of the total errors made. These types of errors were most commonly related to distraction and poor vigilance. Information that was difficult to detect or discriminate was also a prominent factor. Although this may in part be due to the design structure of installations, it presents itself as an issue that merits further investigation. There may be another reason that perception errors were the most common type of SA error to be found. Although the drill floor is a dynamic work environment, much of the work conducted tends to be routine. It is widely known that when tasks are frequent and routine, complacency can set in, and accidents are more likely. The reason that accidents are more likely is because the individual(s) involved have performed the task on so many occasions that the actions involved have become ‘pre-programmed,’ and attentional checks are performed less often. Klein et al. (2005) state that when involved in routine tasks.

Errors relating to ‘use of incorrect mental model’ in Level 2 SA (comprehension) were relatively common, occurring in more than one in ten of the Level 2 failures. This could be associated with new hands or relatively inexperienced personnel, but it was also related to experienced personnel who were working with new types of machinery. This may be related to competence, if some personnel are sent onboard rigs with inadequate or incomplete training, then they cannot be expected to detect significant cues or comprehend their meaning, and may associate the wrong mental model to their work. If personnel are inexperienced with a given situation or piece of equipment, they may not have an accurate mental model upon which to base their actions, and therefore they will be at higher risk of accident involvement.

The category in which it was least common to have an SA error was Level 3 SA (projection), and the apparent poor quality of this. It is understandable that the lowest frequency of SA errors occurs at this level, as projection is dependant upon the successful progression through both levels 1 and 2 of perception and comprehension. The errors found here related to personnel being unable to accurately predict future situations and circumstances in order to develop appropriate courses of action. As with errors found with mental models in Level 2 SA, the role of experience is a prominent factor in the development of a mental model which accurately allows for adequate prediction of future events. The paper suggests that the relative frequency of types of SA errors in the offshore drilling industry are similar to those occurring in aviation and the maritime shipping industry, indicating that the comparative frequencies of SA error causal factors may be a pattern generalisable to other high-risk industries.

Interviews with drilling personnel on situation awareness

Interviews were conducted with the drilling personnel of six oil and gas operator and contractor companies. In total, 17 personnel volunteered to participate and were interviewed. Ten personnel were based onshore (either as HSE Managers, Operations Managers, or Well Engineering Managers) and all had previous offshore experience in the drilling field ranging from 6 to 15 years. Seven personnel were based offshore (positions included Barge Engineer, Offshore Well Engineer, Offshore Installation Manager, Safety Representative), and had been working offshore for between 5 and 26 years. During the interviews, among others the following have been discussed:

  • How is the concept of SA known/termed in the offshore industry? All 17 personnel had slightly differing opinions as to what they regarded as SA, but their definitions centred around perception in that it meant being aware of what was going on around you at all times, being alert for changing situations, and keeping that at the forefront of your mind to enable you to react to changing circumstances. Most said that they would term SA as ‘safety awareness’, because due to the safety critical nature of the offshore environment, all operations have safety as the top priority. Therefore, being aware of t he safety of the situation was crucial and is the first thing that is assessed—‘‘ so it includes knowing generally about your environment, that’s the situation part, but also being aware of the inherent hazards in the surrounding area and formulating ways of dealing with them, that’s the really important part for us, the safety awareness.’’ Others commented that they would call it ‘positional awareness’ or ‘safety accountability’: the former term was used because it was felt to sum up making sure you knew what was going on and where everything was so that you could ‘‘always be in the correct position to avoid mishaps and keep working safely.’’ The latter was due to the responsibility of everyone to ensure that they work safely and to ensure that those around them did also, ascertaining that the situation was always monitored. This accountability for safety was achieved by the behavioural observation systems in place in these companies which encourage interventions in the workplace, both positively (when work is being carried out safely, to reinforce this) and negatively (when work is being performed in an unsafe manner, to step in and make the concerned worker aware of this, and offer advice on how to carry out the job safely).
  • What can be done to check the awareness of workers? There were four main methods used for checking awareness on the job. The first of these was the talk (Tool Box Talk – TBT) which crews conduct at the start of the shift before they begin the job, to discuss the task at hand, and work through any problems that they may encounter, and how these would be dealt with. This was perceived as an excellent method of checking awareness, as it was direct evidence of how much the personnel knew of the job and what activities were ongoing. Participation of all concerned was essential to ensure that the crew had full attention on the job. Risk assessments also certify that they knew the potential hazards of the job, and what to look out for. Continual informal assessments of the situation are required as offshore is a dynamic environment and can change quickly, so continually surveying and monitoring the situation updates knowledge of the job. Supervisors can check on this simply by asking their personnel about the job at that particular time. A final check that can be made regarding awareness is the ‘Pocket’ toolbox talk. This is a pocket-sized paper version of the toolbox talk performed for that day which is carried around by the crew. They can check progress and things to look out for by reminding themselves of the things spoken of in the pre-shift TBT, thus bringing aspects of the job back to their attention, and maintaining their awareness.


To sum up, accident analysis showed that most errors in SA (67%) occurred at the perceptual level, 20% occurred at comprehension, and 13% arose during projection.

Interview findings concluded that isolation from events at home was perceived to be the largest contributory factor for reducing awareness, followed by fatigue and stress. Character change was the most cited indicator of reduced awareness, and communication was thought to be the best method of increasing awareness. Consistency, cohesion, adaptability, and trust were identified as requirements for good team SA.

Situation awareness is a topic which cannot be underestimated since the majority of accidents/incidents occurring have as a root cause the human factor/element.

The paper “Situation Awareness and Safety in Offshore Drill Crews” by Anne Sneddon, Kathryn Mearns, Rhona Flin can be found HERE.

For anyone interested in the subject of industrial psychology there is a great deal of information to be found in the website of the University of Aberdeen in the Industrial Psychology Research Centre webpage:

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