Offshore Safety Needs to Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Our blog has previously talked about the difference between the UK's approach to offshore safety and our country's approach. In essence, the difference is in what our industry's value. In Britain, offshore companies are willing to invest in safety before failure occurs. Safety officials create a list of dire risks and prepare for them, regardless of precedent.
In the US, however, we only fix things after someone's gotten seriously hurt.
Obviously, there's an advantage to that—at least, for the person spending money on safety. Rig supervisors can cut costs and save time by limiting their safety investments to what has already happened to them. Of course, that means if something terrible and unprecedented happens, crews pay for it with their lives.
That's what we find unacceptable.
The Culture of Reactionary Safety
The Houston Chronicle recently published a story about the cost of reactionary safety—of avoiding the costs of protecting personnel or maintaining rigs until something goes terribly wrong. There's something broken about corporate culture in the offshore industry, and it revolves around the value of prevention.
Kim Nibarger, the chairman of oil bargaining for the United Steelworkers Union, put it this way: "It's not an industry that says, 'Gosh, we could be doing better. Let's do this.'" The USU represents 30,000 oil and gas production workers throughout the United States.
That's not to say improvements haven't been made. Operating systems have automated processes to prevent human error, back-ups are standard practice now, and remote monitoring has never been easier. Some drilling companies have invested in shorter shifts and high-level training to create leaders who can improvise in tough situations.
Last year, Hurricane Harvey prompted most drilling rigs to completely evacuate as a precaution, limiting loss of life. Even this is a response to a prior tragedy though—in 1980, the platform Alexander L. Kiellandcapsized during a storm and drowned most of its 123 workers.
Transportation Deaths Lead Fatality Rate
The drilling industry's fatality rate is higher than any other US industry by a wide margin. However, that's completely the fault of the work itself. While drilling work is physically demanding and requires serious endurance, it's getting to and from platforms that kills the most workers.
According to a 2013 study, helicopter crashes caused the most drilling industry deaths from 2006-2013.
An Innovative Choice Reveals a Glaring Truth
Still, it's platform explosions that inspire the most fear from workers and government agencies alike. The deadliest oil rig explosion in history—the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster that killed 167 people—led to a unique arrangement in Scottish government. Prior to the platform explosion, the Department of Energy oversaw both oil production and worker safety.
Following the Piper Alpha investigation, Scotland divided oversight into two categories: production and safety. The Department of Energy would oversee production, and a health and safety executive would oversee safety. This arrangement implies a simple truth: the person responsible for maximum production should not be the same person responsble for keeping everyone safe.
Workers need an advocate apart from the people at the company they work for. They need someone to represent their interests who doesn't consider the company's bottom line. Why? Because in the offshore industry, the bottom line almost always wins.
Fewer Worker Fatalities: Promised but Not Delivered
Take BP, for instance.
The leader at BP, Bob Dudley, reportedly overhauled the way BP handles well drilling in the wake of Deepwater Horizon. They train employees on drilling simulators, have a Houston monitoring center for well operations, and maintain wells regularly (something that every company should be doing). Most importantly, everyone at BP has "the power of the pause"—the ability to stop a job if anything is off.
In the article from the Chronicle, the reporter notes that worker safety advocates were hoping for a noticeable dip in worker fatalities following BP's changes. As Attorney Jason Itkin was quoted saying, "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, the time the problem is that someone on the rig feels pressure from someone on land to do it quicker."
It's that cultural problem that led to an increase in deaths after 2010, and a string of years where worker deaths never dropped below 3 digits.
The Real Number that Governs Offshore Drilling
Why was there a spike in fatalities? Because even with BP's safety changes, the breakneck pace of offshore drilling is inherently dangerous. Why don't companies slow down the pace? We almost feel naive asking the question; we know why. As the Chronicle report points out, "the number of drillers who die on the job roughly corresponds with the price of oil."
From 2011 to 2014, the average price of a barrel of oil climbed from $77 to over $100. Perhaps that's the real change that governs BP's policies. It's not about worker safety, although their tools are worth adopting. In the end, worker safety is about choosing to care about people over hitting record profits.
How many lives will be enough?