As was noted throughout the workshop, the offshore oil industry in other parts of the world has had experiences and drawn conclusions that are directly relevant to the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico. The workshop panel whose presentations are summarized in this chapter compared practices in the Gulf of Mexico with those in other offshore basins. Another panel, summarized in the next chapter, looked to other parts of the industry and to other industries for lessons that could be applied in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tom Macrae, a senior drilling supervisor with Flying A Drilling Services who has worked around the world for more than 30 years, began by quoting from a 2015 article by Texas roughneck David Arp titled “The Shooting Gallery”:
When I began roughnecking in west Texas, the job was like working in a shooting gallery . . . as the duck. My driller only had one tidbit of advice for me that cold, rainy morning. “Try not to lose a finger today.” Lord, have mercy! He wasn’t kidding. What didn’t cut ‘em off left ‘em mangled and broken. Drill pipe tongs and spinning-chains and catlines, all the things that are all but legislated out of existence today, were the tools of our trade. Feelings were harder than rig iron. “If you’re not a bull don’t beller!” “Can’t is used twice out here. Can’t get it, can’t stay!” Sympathy meant they’d help you tie your pant legs tight around your ankles to keep the sugar ants from crawling up to your candy-rear.
Arp’s recollections point to what Macrae identified as a powerful influence in the industry: the attitudes of workers and supervisors. One attitude, he said, is exemplified by a comment once made by musician Trace Adkins, who spent 6 years working on Gulf of Mexico rigs: “I don’t know if I have the temperament to work out there now. Safety has just gotten to be an impediment. It’s harder for them to do their jobs.” When asked if he thought that safety precautions are excessive, he replied, “Probably not. I’m just coming from the perspective of the old school.”
How many offshore oil employees still believe safety has become an impediment? Macrae asked. And how much is this belief driven by “old-school” influence? Based on Macrae’s experience, very little of that attitude persists in the United Kingdom, Norway, and the rest of Western Europe. In West Africa and the Caribbean, it is slightly more pervasive, and perhaps a little more in the Far East. And in California, Macrae observed, a broader societal emphasis on safety is reflected in the oil industry. As for the Gulf of Mexico, he asked the workshop participants, “What do you think?”
Macrae believes that one factor in worker attitudes in the Gulf of Mexico is that the large majority of employees are local. Large percentages of both workers and supervisors in the Gulf of Mexico have worked only there and have not interacted with oil industry employees from elsewhere. As a result, Macrae explained, lessons learned and work practices have passed down through generations of Gulf of Mexico employees. Employees in the Gulf of Mexico also tend not to question authority, he observed. “They were very compliant,” he said. “That’s something we need to think about.”
Macrae suggested that worldwide lessons learned need to be made more available to Gulf of Mexico workers. Similarly, the workers need to
know about important worldwide oilfield events from their companies and from other workers. “We are moving forward with new technology and new ways of doing things,” Macrae pointed out. Similarly, he said, “we have to start with moving people forward and giving them the authority to ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
Offshore Installations (Safety Representatives and Safety Committees) Regulation SI 971 was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1989 after the Piper Alpha disaster, said Steve Rae, who had spoken earlier in the workshop about the Piper Alpha disaster (see Chapter 2). The legislation led to the creation of Elected Safety Representatives (ESRs), placing the burden for introduction and proof of compliance with these regulations on duty holders. Within the SI 971 regulations were no specific details on how the U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Inspectorate would maintain oversight of offshore surveillance and inspection activities. Rae explained that the offshore installation manager was given responsibility for making sure that these regulations were enacted offshore. His duties included creating an onboard safety committee, establishing constituencies, and providing training and support. In addition, Rae noted, the U.K. Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation (OPITO),1 the industry standards body, developed specific training and competency standards for ESRs, which were accepted by the industry. “For me, that was a step toward empowerment and engagement,” he said.
Over time, Rae continued, numerous concerns were raised regarding the effectiveness and uptake of these regulations by industry, which included feedback from the offshore workforce that there were too many “gray” areas. In response, an industry Workforce Involvement Group (WIG) with broad representation was established in 2009 to address these and other industry safety performance concerns. Rae explained that the WIG conducted a comprehensive Offshore Workforce Survey on the use of ESRs and safety committees, which confirmed that the workforce saw both functions as critical to achieving workforce engagement in health and safety management offshore. The feedback also confirmed a lack of consistency in the application of the legislation in its current form.
Upon the conclusion of the survey and report writing, the WIG recommended that the U.K. HSE review how it monitored the application and effectiveness of SI 971. The U.K. HSE responded by introducing a specific SI 971 Offshore Inspection Program covering the legal framework for levels of compliance with worker involvement programs across duty holders;
assessment of the effectiveness of these programs at informing the U.K. HSE, industry, and stakeholder groups; and U.K. HSE follow-up through enforcement should noncompliance be identified. The U.K. HSE also developed an inspection template based on the following subsections of the SI 971 regulations:
- ESRs, constituencies, and the election balloting process;
- functions and powers of ESRs;
- functionality and effectiveness of offshore safety committees;
- support roles of duty holders, platform managers, and employing companies;
- ESRs’ time off for development and access to training;
- commitment to capturing and sharing good practices and investigation findings; and
- documenting and following up on inspection findings and use of a standardized U.K. HSE coding “traffic light” system.
According to Rae, these actions by the U.K. HSE have provided encouragement and reinforced a message to management on the importance of SI 971. He noted that inspectors consistently report back on how well received the program is by ESRs, and that inspectors have been motivated to “up their game” when interacting with the workforce and duty holders. He added that there has been a desire for the U.K. HSE to maintain rigor with respect to compliance inspections and provide ongoing encouragement to the duty holders to maintain their involvement with the ESRs. The overall conclusion, Rae stated, is that an empowered and engaged workforce can deliver benefits to the platform and to the duty holders’ businesses.
Rae acknowledged that room still exists for further improvement in dialogue between duty holders and the safety committees and ESRs. Also, he noted, there remain concerns that becoming an ESR may be viewed as having a negative effect on one’s career path.
Rae concluded by observing that this approach is not necessarily a best practice, but could be adapted and implemented elsewhere. He also highlighted the actions being taken by Step Change in Safety, a not-for-profit, member-led organization that aims to make the United Kingdom the safest oil province in the world for workers.2 He explained that Step Change in Safety brings together operators and contractors, trade unions, regulators, and the onshore and offshore workforce to develop safety guidelines, share good practices, and communicate facts so that no one becomes complacent about staying safe. He stressed that “all workers have a fundamental right
to work in an environment where risks to their health and safety are properly controlled.”
When Chris Connor, offshore installation manager for Seadrill International Resources, went to work on the West Leo rig in 2013, he found many small problems. He was informed by the rig manager that the rig was considered a “red rig” and ranked 17th among 19 rigs in that division. Workers were taking shortcuts, control of work was poor, and management of change was deficient. As an example, he pointed to how dangerous lifeboats can be. “You don’t go on a lifeboat without a permit to work,” he observed. When an engineer said he was going on a lifeboat, Connor asked him, “Where is your paperwork?” The worker answered, “It will take more time to fill out the paperwork than it will take me to do the job.” “I don’t care,” responded Connor. “Do the paperwork.” You have to be tough, he added, or the shortcuts will continue.
Although the team on the rig was good, Connor continued, many things were being done poorly or incorrectly. He characterized this situation as “low integrity.” “What is integrity?” he elaborated. “Integrity is what you do when nobody is watching.” He added that whenever he had a chance, he talked about rules, paperwork, and integrity. He also talked about stop-work authority, which he asserted was misnamed: “It should be stop-work obligation.” At every meeting, he said, he stressed the need for workers to stop a job should they observe an unsafe condition. Workers can have strong intuitions that something is being done wrong, he explained, and they have to listen to that voice and take action.
Connor’s client endorsed what he wanted to do. Jobs included advance planning meetings, after-action reviews, and processes for deriving lessons learned. A special program was instituted for workers who thought they knew a better way of doing something; they wrote it up, submitted it, and were rewarded for their contributions. Connor reported that a few years after he started on the rig, it was converted from drilling to completions while it continued to drill, “so we did a lot of fabrication work in that time without incident,” a fact he attributed to the process of working together at safety meetings.
Connor went on to describe how he assisted a performance coach onboard in delivering a voluntary 10-session leadership development program that covered organization, management, leadership, mentoring, coaching, how to deal with a boss, and other topics. Sessions, which lasted 40 minutes to an hour, were held once or twice a week, with about 60 employees attending. “There are people on your rigs who want this kind of training, they want this opportunity,” Connor stressed. He asserted that this train-
ing and following the rules with high integrity helped West Leo win an award for rig of the year (going from 17th out of 19 to 1st out of 19 in approximately 14 months). On a more personal level, he recalled walking with a vice president of the company past an African national roustabout who stopped them for a time-out for safety and asked them why they were not wearing their gloves.
Connor stated that the same thing happens with process safety as with personal safety. He noted that workers are empowered to raise questions about the equipment or about how things are being done. They also have been trained to know immediately what to do in the case of an incident, just as the pilot of a small plane knows exactly what to do if the engine loses power. “You do not need a team full of superstars,” Connor concluded. Instead, he argued, all workers on a rig need to do their job, and a team needs to have synergy and depth to be successful.
Unlike other countries, the United States lacks an overarching regulatory structure for the offshore oil industry, noted Rick Engler, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, commonly referred to as the Chemical Safety Board (CSB).3 Some states have safety committees tied to their worker compensation systems, but “it’s a patchwork,” he said. “Safety committees often have minimal responsibilities, rights, duties, and structures.”
Engler cited as another fundamental difference that there are essentially no trade unions in the Gulf of Mexico working offshore. This is in contrast to the onshore oil industry, he pointed out, as workers in roughly 90 of the 140 oil refineries in the United States have union representation. According to Engler, this difference reflects an earlier merger of the oil, chemical, and atomic workers into the United Steelworkers Union, which represents approximately 30,000 refinery workers and steelworkers today. He observed that the collective bargaining rights provided for under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act enable unions to negotiate on wages, hours, and working conditions, which for the oil industry has resulted in a number of health and safety improvements. These improvements, Engler explained, include health and safety committees; time off for training; the hiring of health consultants; and the designation of safety representatives, including representatives focused on process safety. In general, he said, these
3 The views expressed below do not in their entirety reflect the official position of the U.S. CSB.
measures enable employees to have their voices heard, and those voices can be a critical component of empowerment.
Engler pointed to many factors that make it difficult to establish unions in the Gulf, including low levels of union representation in the private sector, the fragmentation of the workforce, and the number of different contractors involved in the offshore industry. Nevertheless, he expressed the opinion that bringing workers together across employers and locations would give them a greater voice on the job. “Ultimately, it’s going to depend on those people who are on the front lines of facing danger and doing this work,” he said. They are the ones who can “stand up, speak out, and pose challenges about how to move ahead.” One approach, for example, would be forming an educational association of Gulf workers that would enable them to obtain additional training, raise technical questions, and report hazards anonymously.
In the discussion following Engler’s presentation, several workshop participants made the point that empowerment does not require unionization. For example, the ESRs in places that use that system are not necessarily unionized. Engler responded that very limited data do point to a correlation between safety and the establishment of safety committees in the states that have taken that step. But his larger point, he added, is that the structures to bring people together need not be unions; people just need to be working together to feel confident to speak out.
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