Worker empowerment in the offshore oil industry involves many stakeholders. Within the industry, stakeholders include the front-line workers, supervisors, middle management, and leaders of the many different companies involved in offshore oil production. Outside the industry, stakeholders include investors, regulators, consumers, and everyone who experiences
the environments affected by the industry. Four presenters at the workshop commented on these various stakeholders and their roles in worker empowerment.
Michael Fry, president and chief executive officer of Deepwater Subsea LLC, who worked on nuclear submarines for a decade before joining the oil industry, began by observing that with submarines, “you’ve already sunk the ship.” If there is a flood, a fire, or some other kind of emergency, he added, people have to make split-second decisions. “So the first stakeholder is yourself,” he said. During the Deepwater Horizon accident, he was a superintendent for Transocean, and six of those killed were his friends. “I tell guys all the time when we train them to own their space,” he said. “You can’t rely on the next person to be the person to have the information.” He argued that good individuals make good departments make good rigs make good divisions make good organizations. Thus, he asserted, “the more that we can develop the individuals, the better off we’re going to be.”
Fry identified supervisors as the next level of stakeholder. He pointed out that if supervisors see someone not following company policies and procedures and let it slide, other workers will do the same. He added that supervisors also have a tendency to ignore new procedures because they believe such procedures will soon be replaced. Thus, he argued, organizations need to understand that constant changes work against creating continuity in the workforce. Organizations also need to distinguish between perceptions and reality, he said: “The perception is we have great policies and procedures that are ready. The reality is when we go offshore to the front-line workers and they’re not following them.”
Fry stressed that supervisors and operators need to be held accountable for following these policies and procedures. In the Navy, he observed, supervisors can do spot checks to ensure that someone who has done a job knows how to do it: “Do you have the tools? Do you know the safety things that you’re looking for? Show me how you actually did this. What are you looking for while you’re doing it?” Today, he noted, senior people have so much administrative work to do that junior people have to do the supervising. But, he pointed out, the experienced workers are the ones who know what is supposed to be done. “My first day offshore I had an incident take place,” he said. “My supervisor came down and said, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’ I said, ‘Because I was looking at everybody else, and everybody else was just standing around, so I thought what they were doing was normal.’ The reality is if we don’t have the experience or we’re not training the individuals, we’re never going to get to that level.”
Fry emphasized that people need to go beyond procedures to “what if.”
He has taken an approach called 30-20-10—doing 30 minutes of training every day over the course of a 20- or 21-day hitch. “That’s 10 hours of customized training,” he said. Each day he asks a “what if” question, with the trainees presenting answers the next day. “It [makes] you think outside the box of real-life scenarios,” he observed. Workers want to do good jobs, he added. “If we’re not developing them to be the leaders of tomorrow, we’re actually failing ourselves as organizations, which is sad, because in a downturn, training is normally the first thing to get cut.” However, he identified training organizations as a stakeholder that often gets missed: “We train people in operations, [but] we don’t train the technicians,” he said. He argued that the more a worker can be trained to be a technician, to understand the equipment in detail, the more confidence can be placed in that worker. Today, he stated, workers lack confidence, so they tend to stop work and call someone in the office when they observe a problem.
Finally, Fry stated that leaders need to take ownership in their workers by training, developing, and empowering them. He noted that the military does not have a catch-all organization like human resources staffed by people who work very hard with limited resources but are not in the performance business. “Human factors that get deemed ‘soft skills’ by some organizations, the Marine Corps refers to as critical combat skills,” he said. “That’s a cultural change driven by organizational leadership.”
Kevin Lacy, chief executive officer of Proactive RT Solutions LLC and president of Drilling Principles LLC, has worked to implement safety processes in offshore basins around the world. He noted that in one of his first jobs, off the west coast of Africa, “we had no processes, we had just what we had in our heads.” Many people there, he said, were from the Gulf of Mexico; they were tired of the rules in effect in the Gulf, “and in West Africa you could be a cowboy.” Just days after he had completed his 4 weeks on the rig and was home, he received a phone call. “We had an instrument technician who was killed,” he said. “Lockout-tagout was at fault, he was at fault, the two people he was with were at fault, I was at fault. That’s a lesson that I learned.”
Lacy’s experiences with safety culture have convinced him that all stakeholders have a responsibility for safety. “When we start asking ourselves how we get worker empowerment,” he said, “we’ve got to ask everyone at every level, ‘What does that mean?’” He stressed that worker empowerment is not the only answer. Rather, the answer is whatever is needed to achieve zero serious injuries and fatalities.
The front-line, supervisory, and management levels are all important, Lacy continued, emphasizing that front-line workers in particular are the
best first responders. “They’re the most well-informed individuals who can take action immediately to avoid an incident,” he said. “And if they don’t because of competency, or because of a failure to communicate effectively, or their views are overridden, or they’re afraid to speak up, then we still have a problem.”
Lacy noted that very few managers can afford to keep their workers on during downturns. He characterized this as a dilemma of economic cycles. “Until we get to the point where training, competency, development at the front-line and first-line supervisor and probably the next level is a requirement, as it is in some companies or some industries, we’re not going to get to where we really need to be in this technically sophisticated industry,” he argued. “We’re still going to suffer incidents because of these downturns, and we’re still going to suffer unnecessary insufficiencies.”
Lacy emphasized the importance of collaborating across companies, including service companies. He added that lessons from other industries also can be applied if they are translated correctly. “We can’t just take a checklist and make it work,” he stressed. “We have to understand how certain things translate into a particular culture.”
Lacy pointed to the Piper Alpha as a galvanizing incident for the North Sea, one that has made a difference in the culture and how people do things. Yet he continued that the measures instituted must be adapted to the particular context: “Will those things work exactly the same here? No. Will they work the same in offshore China? No. You have to translate those things and develop compensating mechanisms that will work in your culture.” To Lacy, by contrast, Macondo still feels like a “Teflon incident, not a galvanizing incident.” “Eleven people died. Have we really taken that impact? Have we just blamed BP? Have we just blamed Transocean? Have we as an industry said enough?”
In the process of building the first seventh-generation drill ship, David Walker, global quality, health, safety, and environment manager, consulting and project management, for Halliburton, was part of a team that built a new drill crew as well as a new ship. In the process, he said, the team tried to do “something different, break the rules, do the right thing.” Workers want to protect themselves and their shipmates, he observed, but there is a disconnect between safety and empowerment.
The main source of this disconnect, said Walker, is middle management. He noted that conflicting business priorities can create tension between safety and other objectives, and as a result, workers say they need to hold their tongue, that speaking up is going to cost them time and money. Managers, he argued, have to encourage a quite different approach. For
example, he said, they need to coach themselves to thank someone who is exercising stop-work authority, even if that person is wrong. He stressed that one misplaced comment or one bad day can break the trust between middle management and front-line workers. “And it won’t be the replacement of people that changes it out,” he added. “It’ll be months if not years before you get that back again.”
Walker then asked whether stop-work authority is a culture, a skill set, or a program, and argued that it is all those things. And as with most skill sets, he said, people are not going to go from never having exercised this authority to being an expert in doing so overnight. “You have to pace yourself,” he added. “People are going to make mistakes. Are they intentional mistakes, which can’t be tolerated? Because if that is the case, then you have to make hard decisions. Or is it a growth curve?”
Walker characterized achieving safety as a continuous process of improvement, explaining that in cultural safety assessments, he says, “Don’t worry about that. You are where you are. The only value of discussion is what is it going to take to get to the next step.” He stressed that simply showing a set of PowerPoint slides is not enough. Rather, he said, “This is a huge commitment for your organization. I’ve worked with four organizations that are deeply mature with a lot of gray hair and scar tissue behind them, and they celebrate stop-work authorities that cost them millions of dollars. That’s an investment for them.” He argued further that the “teeth” of stop-work authority or worker empowerment should not be delegated to regulatory agencies, but that companies and workforces need to own safety, not have it driven by regulations and scripts. He added that this perspective is not yet widespread in the United States, that companies and workers feel that if they follow a checklist, they will be okay. Yet, he said, when operational leaders take responsibility for safety, “you see a huge change in behavior.”
Walker agreed with Lacy that past accidents have not yet led to sufficient change. “On our bad days, we need to find somebody to blame,” he said. “Macondo hurt all of us for different reasons. [But] I wondered, has it not hurt deep enough? Because it doesn’t feel like we’re there enough to want to change what we’re doing. We still seem to want to put it in the rear-view mirror and drive away.”
In his written comments,1 Stan Kaczmarek, chief of the Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) Section for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), noted that BSEE’s role as a regulator is to set expectations and requirements for operating oil and gas facilities safely and to apply those expectations and enforce those requirements consistently across the entire industry. He explained that most BSEE regulations set requirements for the existence and safe design and operability of specific types of equipment, but the SEMS regulations are different in many ways: they require operators to ensure that employees are involved in safety management (e.g., that they understand and sign job safety analyses) and have a say in how the SEMS program is developed, implemented, and modified, and they empower the workforce by, for example, providing procedures for exercising stop-work authority and for reporting unsafe working conditions directly.
Audit results indicate that companies have taken these requirements seriously and have largely taken steps to engage the workforce, Kaczmarek observed. However, some audit results reveal that at times, evidence of employee engagement may be lacking by indicating, for example, a lack of signatures on job safety analyses or an employee’s not having the training to complete an assigned task. His comments noted that BSEE wants to ensure that both operators and their employees are aware that the agency’s SEMS requirements make it the operator’s responsibility to keep employees safe by providing them with the necessary training, involving them in the safety management process, and empowering them to exercise stop-work authority.
Kaczmarek identified company culture as another aspect of employee engagement and worker empowerment, one that probably affects the industry more than does the text of the regulations. He also noted that BSEE cannot regulate culture, but it can influence its development. For example, SEMS is a vehicle for promoting operational excellence by encouraging awareness of opportunities to fix performance issues and by holding companies accountable for acting on those opportunities in ways that prove to be effective in improving performance.
1 Stan Kaczmarek was unable to attend the workshop in person because of the federal government shutdown that occurred in January 2018. Therefore, he provided his comments in writing, and they were presented to the participants during the workshop panel in which he was scheduled to participate.