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September 10, 2009

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Eyes on the prize

Latest figures from the HSE suggest that the offshore industry has made significant progress on a range of safety issues and is gradually getting better at involving employees in safety matters. George Allison describes how one oil company actively encourages its workforce to stay alert to issues of safety and stop work if they feel this could be jeopardised.

In January 2006, I joined a semi-submersible drilling unit in a safety-advisor capacity, responsible for overseeing health, safety and environmental issues while crews carry out drilling tasks.

The usual practice offshore is to hold pre-shift safety meetings, in which there is a discussion of safety measures to be taken for the current operations. We hold daily safety meetings for all supervisors to discuss the best way forward operationally, and hold weekly safety meetings to discuss current incidents and accidents, and keep crews informed of new safety features, presentations, DVDs, and training.

The crews were experienced in their particular duties, but it soon became apparent they were not functioning well together. In the first year of contract, there were no fewer than 27 incidents, of which five were first-aid cases and four were lost-time incidents (LTIs), while the rest involved mechanical and environmental incidents. Despite every effort to correct this trend, it continued. Indeed, in the second year, there were even more cases — 32 in total, of which six were first-aid cases and three were LTIs.

In June and July 2007 the oil company and contractor attempted to address the situation by holding a series of 24-hour safety shutdowns, in addition to two meetings at fortnightly intervals to capture all four crews and contractor personnel. The meetings consisted of presentations from the oil company and contractor companies to highlight the reasons for getting everyone together.
In each session, the rig manager started by presenting the LTIs we had onboard the rig, as well as showing the crews a ‘chart of excellence’, where the safest rigs of the contractor fleet are marked in the corner at zero on the X axis and zero on the Y axis for both performance and safety achievements. The chart showed that, for safety, our rig was ranked 82nd of 82 rigs of the worldwide drilling contractor fleet.

Crew reaction

The main message delivered to the crew was that if we continued down this road, someone would eventually be killed. We needed a reaction from the crew because it held the key to the problem.

After the presentation, speeches and talks, we aimed to discuss what we had heard — but, disappointingly, there was little contribution from those present. To generate some debate, we decided to split up into four or five mixed groups, consisting of junior supervisors, crew members and contractor staff, with a separate group of senior supervisors. The groups were to congregate in separate rooms and discuss how they believed a better safety culture could be achieved.

What happened next was a total surprise. When all the groups were seated in their respective rooms, they started arguing and bickering with each other, blaming the supervisors for the poor safety record and citing bad planning due to work and time constraints. It was decided to let these discussions run their course and allow the tension to clear, with managers, the rig safety coordinator and myself supervising and taking notes of reactions and comments.

Once things cooled down, everyone was able to focus on the questions and they were asked to write down the reasons they believed were responsible for the poor safety culture. A snapshot of the answers we received from all the groups included the following comments:

  • Pressure (intentional/unintentional) from supervisors or peers;
  • Lack of experience among personnel;
  • Lack of awareness of the hazards;
  • Lack of concentration;
  • Lack of interest in safety;
  • Afraid to be seen as lazy, slow, or unprofessional;
  • Afraid to be seen as a trouble-maker;
  • Afraid to admit that they didn’t understand;
  • Afraid to be seen as incompetent;
  • Afraid to be seen as stupid/silly;
  • Afraid to be seen as weak;
  • Afraid of upsetting work mates;
  • Afraid of losing their jobs; and
  • Afraid of being seen as unable to cope.

Next, the groups were each asked to write down what action they were prepared to take on a personal level to improve the safety culture onboard the rig. Supervisors were also asked how they could better use their experience, knowledge and skills to encourage their colleagues to perform in a safer manner.

Aims and measures

During the group meetings it was highlighted that most people had difficulty in calling a Time Out For Safety (TOFS), designed to stop any job instantly, for fear of reprisals. Some supervisors were more approachable than others on the subject, but every accident or incident that occurred on the rig could have been avoided if we had asked for a TOFS.

It was found that we needed to make better use of the safety observation card system, in order to prove that personnel were observing their surroundings and looking out for each other. By reinforcing the safety-card process, we would gain essential feedback to see trends in potential incidents, or future safety issues, enabling us to tackle them before they could do any harm.

Supervisors needed to take more time with crews to explain more fully the procedures and tasks, making sure that everyone understood what was being asked of them. They also needed to mentor and pass on their knowledge to crew members to make sure they were up to speed with training. They needed to encourage an atmosphere where crew members had the confidence to request a TOFS, assuring them of the importance of the job being done safely with nobody getting hurt.

It was identified that, as part of a TOFS, personnel should: report any equipment defects immediately; shut the process or machine down; secure, repair and resume the job; and inform their relief workers of what had occurred after pre-tour meetings. Overall, these measures were designed to empower everyone with a positive attitude towards safety.

Personal commitment

Following feedback from the teams to management, we asked them to make a firm personal commitment towards their own safety and that of their fellow crew members. We asked them to think as one team, regardless of which company they belonged to. As long as they were here, they were the rig team.

This team had several new targets with regard to safety: to promote safety as a team; to avoid complacency and encourage the use of safety observation cards; to reinforce efficient safety tours; to participate more actively and effectively in safety, and have safety in mind when walking around the rig; to take more interest in other operations; to ask more questions; if necessary, to call for a TOFS without hesitation; to be more accountable by not accepting risks; and to stay focused and committed to safety. This was all encapsulated in the following phrase: zero tolerance of any unsafe acts or conditions.

When the responses were written we asked each worker, including middle and upper management, to read their statements out in front of the other groups. We are all committed to a better safety culture, some supervisors by taking more time to mentor employees in safe practices, others by taking better care of colleagues while performing their work. This includes calling a TOFS every time they are unsure of what is happening in the task they are performing; whenever they feel they are under excess pressure; and if they see or feel something might possibly go wrong with any task.

All of the written responses were typed out and a photograph of the author attached. These were put up on a special noticeboard, so everyone who arrives on the rig is able to read how each team member is committed to safety. When new crew members or service-provider personnel join the rig for the first time, they are all asked to write down their own commitments to safety.

Continued success

Since these actions were implemented, we have had two further proactive safety shutdowns to celebrate one year without a lost-time incident, or an injury to anyone working on the rig. The number of safety observation cards has risen from an average of 20 to around 60 a day, reflecting a huge increase in awareness of the importance of safety. Personnel are keeping to their commitments and working as one team. In 2008, we had 12 incidents involving plant and machinery — none of which was serious — no lost-time incidents, and no first-aid cases. So far this year there are no incidents to report, and on 16 June we celebrated two years without a lost-time incident.

George Allison is a freelance safety consultant working on a drilling rig in the North Sea for a major oil and gas company.

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