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Battling Complacency

On February 16, 1982, the Ocean Ranger sank during a violent winter storm off the coast of Newfoundland — all 84 crew members were lost.On July 6, 1988, a series of explosions and fires wracked the Piper Alpha oil production...


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  • On February 16, 1982, the Ocean Ranger sank during a violent winter storm off the coast of Newfoundland — all 84 crew members were lost.
  • On July 6, 1988, a series of explosions and fires wracked the Piper Alpha oil production platform — 165 of the 226 workers on board died.
  • On March 12, 2009, Cougar Helicopter Flight 491 was forced to ditch in the Atlantic about 55 kilometres off the Newfoundland coast — only one of the 18 passengers and crew survived.
  • On April 20, 2010, escaping gas flooded into the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico, ignited and exploded — 11 crew members were killed.

Complacency may be the biggest threat to safety. Just because a company hasn’t experienced a big accident (yet), “you mustn’t confuse ‘low probability’ with ‘no probability,’” says Dr. Mark Fleming, the CN professor of safety culture at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. When things go wrong in the offshore business, they can go wrong in a big way. A professor of psychology, Dr. Fleming has been studying the human factors at play in major industrial accidents since the Piper Alpha incident 25 years ago.

“Many companies make the assumption that occupational safety correlates directly with process safety,” he says. “It’s true that if lots of employees are getting hurt, it may indicate a facility has a higher than average chance of going ‘boom,’ but the reverse isn’t always the case.”

A company may be focusing its time and resources on worker safety, while skimping on the routine maintenance or equipment upgrades that help reduce the risk of a major incident. “I haven’t crunched the numbers, but it often seems when I investigate a new disaster, I discover that the company had recently won a safety award,” Dr. Fleming says.

CULTURAL FACTORS

In a paper published in June 2012, Dr. Fleming looked at 15 major accidents in the offshore oil and gas sector — nine occurring on offshore facilities, five during flights to or from those installations and one involving a support vessel — from 1980 to 2010. His review of the causal factors reveals a disturbing pattern. While weather and technical problems all played a role, in 12 of the 15 incidents, multiple “cultural” causes were cited again and again:

  • Tolerance of inadequate systems and resources devoted to safety or a narrow focus on only those hazards covered by regulation was identified 10 times;
  • Normalization of deviance, essentially cutting corners or straying from accepted practices in the interest of “getting the job done,” was noted nine times; and
  • Complacency was identified eight times, or as Dr. Fleming says, “people forget to be afraid and do not give safety the attention warranted by the risk.”

To counter these threats, Dr. Fleming says offshore companies must create a safety culture improvement plan that assigns responsibilities, incorporates specific strategies to manage culture, and is subject to continuous performance evaluations and improvements (see “Tracking the evolving safety culture” sidebar on page 13). If the offshore sector doesn’t learn the obvious cultural lessons from its history, it could be doomed to repeat them, he concludes.

It’s too easy to talk generalities when talking safety culture, Dr. Fleming says. Some managers may routinely insist that safety is a top priority, “but most companies think they are doing a much better job than they actually are,” he contends.

Breakdowns in safety culture are usually manifest through the behaviour of frontline workers, but it is a mistake to concentrate efforts solely on those particular employees. “The focus has to be on improvement and change,” says Dr. Fleming, “and the way we change corporate safety culture is primarily through leadership.” 

Those leaders, in turn, authorize new management and reporting systems, inspections, training courses and additional safety equipment.

TAKING THE LEAD

Certain industries — aviation, nuclear power generators and offshore oil and gas producers — have been trailblazers in embracing the safety culture concept, says Claudine Bradley, technical leader of safety for the National Energy Board (NEB) in Ottawa. “The genesis of safety culture grew out of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and it’s aimed at preventing that kind of high consequence/low probability event,” Bradley says. Simply put: a stronger safety culture equals safer operations.

On October 31, 2013, the NEB released a discussion paper, Advancing Safety in the Oil and Gas Industry: Draft Safety Culture Framework, for public comment. The framework was pulled together by the NEB, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) and the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NSOPB) to promote “learning and a shared understanding” of the emerging safety culture discipline across the oil and gas sector in Canada.

“Safety culture is a complex notion, easily misused, if only inadvertently,” Bradley says. “The framework makes it crystal clear what we mean and what our expectations are for the regulated companies.”

According to the draft, safety culture is defined as “the attitudes, values, norms and beliefs, which a particular group of people shares with respect to risk and safety.” The document lays out a series of high-level characteristics, both positive and negative: the contributors include committed safety leadership, vigilance and resiliency, while the threats include complacency, production pressures and a tolerance of inadequate resources. Then for each characteristic, a list of “descriptors” paints a picture of how a safety culture would look and work.

For example, a strong safety culture is one in which:

  • Leaders demonstrate that safety is their overriding value and priority;
  • Every employee feels empowered and rewarded for making safe decisions;
  • Employees feel encouraged to report safety hazards, even where they have committed an error or introduced a threat themselves;
  • The most junior employee would not hesitate to take action in response to a safety concern without fear of reprisal; and
  • A supervisor does not have to be present for someone to do the right thing.

The NEB expects that regulated companies will use the framework (as well as the implementation and tracking tools still to be developed) to build and sustain a positive safety culture in order to comply with both the onshore pipeline regulations and the offshore drilling and production regulations under the federal-provincial accords that govern the sector.

“The goal of zero accidents can be a reality. It’s something we believe in,” Bradley says. “There are two key ingredients to achieving this: first, effective management systems that are well implemented and, second, a robust culture of safety.” The release of the draft framework is just “the first step in a long journey,” she says.

The next stage will be to refine the framework based on feedback. Then the NEB will create the tools that operators and regulators could use to assess the current state of their safety culture, to reveal the vulnerabilities and show any opportunities for improvement. These assessment metrics will also allow regulators to identify themes and trends, to direct attention towards areas of concern and to identify best practices.

“Safety culture is not really about preventing ‘slips, trips and falls,’ although it could produce positive results in those areas,” Bradley says. “It’s about preventing catastrophic accidents by improving systems safety and environmental protection.”

NO SHORTCUTS

“We are pretty close to instilling a safety culture in Suncor Energy, but that ‘journey to zero’ [accidents] will never end. Once you think you’ve arrived, you are fooling yourself,” says Ray Dalton, the company’s environmental health and safety advisor. “Our workers won’t take a shortcut when there is no one around watching. If they can’t do it safely, they don’t do it at all,” he says.

TRACKING THE EVOLVING SAFETY CULTURE

To keep safety programs on track, managers need accurate and reliable information. “Management usually has a fairly clouded perception of the actual safety situation,” argues Dr. Mark Fleming, the CN professor of safety culture at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. It’s hard to get accurate feedback with so many filters between the frontline and the upper offices. Management is also getting a lot of “false info,” he says, “and if they are just relying on injury statistics, they are getting nothing.”

Employers need to take a broader, more systematic approach to gauge the company’s commitment to safety. Dr. Fleming and his staff are currently developing a series of metrics that can be collected, rated and compared to data from previous reporting periods to track trends. “The key element in safety culture metrics is to focus on the quality and not just the number of reports,” he says.

  • Peer observations reflect workers’ involvement in safety management. Look at the safety cards submitted and track the number of detailed, high quality observations;
  • Near misses and close calls are great opportunities to learn. Chart the number and quality of these reports;
  • Worksite visits by managers are vital for showing commitment and gathering feedback. Track the number of high quality visits made by each operations manager;
  • All employees must comply with the safety rules and procedures. Track the number of non-compliance incidences noted during inspections; and
  • Project delays and overruns can indicate poor planning and increase production pressures. The number and details of unplanned delays should be tracked.

The last lost-time injury on Suncor’s Terra Nova floating, production, storage and off-loading (FPSO) vessel occurred back in 2005. Since then, the rig has operated some 3.5 million person hours without a serious injury.

If a Suncor worker sees a hazard — it might be a patch of ice, somebody who should be tied off or someone not wearing their safety glasses — they point it out right away, then enter the info onto a safety card and put it into a system. “Nobody is concerned about stopping the job,” says Dalton. “You might not get as much work done, but you get it done safely.”

There are also regular “toolbox” meetings, weekly and monthly safety newsletters, safety discussions before any work is started and a review of all safety cards at shift’s end. The FPSO vessel is divided into 12 safety zones and, once a week, a supervisor, the company safety officer and a worker representative inspect one zone. They note any deficiencies, which are documented in the company’s ProAct (Proactive Reporting Organizing Analysis Corrective Actions Tracking) system. A worker rep is also included in the investigation of any “high potential” incident and contributes to the report that goes up to the C-NLOPB.

The nuts and bolts of safety are “so embedded in the culture” that when a young worker goes off on the two-day training session required before they join Suncor’s joint health and safety committee, “they know 90 per cent of the course material already,” Dalton says.

REGULATING REGULATIONS

Off the coast of Nova Scotia, there are two major players that “understand the importance of safety culture,” says Stuart Pinks, CEO of the C-NSOPB, referring to the Sable Offshore Energy Project operated by Exxon Mobil and the Deep Panuke Offshore Gas Development Project by Encana Corporation.

Offshore workplaces have been in “a state of legal uncertainty for many years,” governed under federal-provincial accords that talk about safety, but not specifically about occupational health and safety, Pinks notes. Ottawa is currently attempting to fill that gap with proposed legislation that essentially inserts an oh&s statute into those accords.

“Bill C-5 really takes the best of what’s in place, recognizing some of the nuances of the industry,” says Pinks. “It’s very good, purpose-built legislation that reflects the ‘state-of-the-art’ in occupational oversight.” Once in effect, offshore workers will enjoy the same comprehensive legal protections that cover their onshore colleagues.

The bill will address the safety responsibilities of each party working offshore — operators, contractors, service companies and employees — as well as provide certain rights to the workers being transported to, from and between rigs. It will also equip oh&s officers “with a whole suite of enforcement powers to ensure all the parties meet their responsibilities,” Pinks says.

In the interim, the offshore petroleum boards (OPBs) have written a series of detailed oh&s requirements, which impart the same level of rigour found in most provincial statutes and are incorporated as a “condition of authorization.” Prior to launching any exploration, development or production activity, the operator must prepare a safety plan and submit it to the presiding OPB.

The board’s chief safety officer (CSO) conducts a pre-authorization assessment to determine whether the plan meets the legal requirements — namely, that it identifies and controls site hazards, establishes management system linkages and a command structure, addresses emergency response planning and covers monitoring, worker training and qualifications.

Once the OPB is satisfied, a company can begin operations, while the CSO and other board safety officers conduct periodic audits and on-site inspections to ensure the plan is being followed and the operator is complying with all the oh&s and operational safety requirements. The CSO and his staff also follow up on any health and safety incident or accident reports to ensure that causes and corrective actions are identified; review the compliance reports submitted by the operator and the minutes of its joint oh&s committee meetings; and investigate any unsafe work refusals that the worker and management have not yet resolved.

If a company is non-compliant, “the first thing one of our officers would do is point out the deficiency to the operator to take corrective action,” says Pinks. “We’ve found that our operators take safety very seriously and, typically, they will jump right away to fix any shortcomings.” If not, or if the deficiency poses an immediate safety threat, the officer can issue an order, recommend that the OPB revoke an approval or authorization, or even launch a prosecution to ensure safety protocols are being followed.

BREAK FROM THE NORM

This somewhat unorthodox, performance-based approach to occupational safety appears to be getting results. According to statistics compiled by the C-NSOPB, there were just four lost-time accidents (three involving installations and one involving a vessel) reported in 2012/13 — and none the previous year — among a workforce that typically logs approximately one million working hours a year in sometimes very harsh conditions; that’s equivalent to about 500 full-time positions.

The Newfoundland and Labrador numbers are similar. The number of reported injuries has held steady since offshore production ramped up in 1998 — with 28 reportable injuries that year and 27 in 2012. However, over that same period, the total person-hours worked annually have tripled to almost 4.9 million, representing nearly 2,500 full-time workers. Over the last five years, worker injuries in the province’s offshore oil and gas industry were about 80 percent lower than the provincial average.

However, catastrophic accidents, such as the Cougar Helicopter crash in 2009, are still taking a toll. South of the border, transport accidents were responsible for just over half of the 128 fatalities in the offshore oil and gas extraction industry between 2003 and 2010, according to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Three-quarters of these involved helicopter transport, while the remainder revolved around employees in the “transportation and material moving” occupations on various vessels. The CDC concludes that in order to reduce fatalities in offshore oil and gas operations, “employers should ensure that the most stringent applicable transportation guidelines are followed.”

TRAINING IMPROVEMENTS

Here in Canada, safety training in the country’s offshore industry is already “world class,” says Paul Barnes, manager of Atlantic Canada operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), which represents about 90 per cent of the companies active in Canada’s upstream oil and gas industry. “Our operators provide the best available equipment and training systems for the Atlantic Canada offshore environment.

“Whether you are working onshore or offshore in the oil and gas industry, safety remains the top priority from an industry perspective,” Barnes says. “But in the offshore, you also have a long way to go to get to work, usually by helicopter, although sometimes by supply ships. That requires extra attention be paid to transport safety issues.”


FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Obesity has been linked to an increased incidence of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain kinds of cancer. From an oh&s perspective, obesity also increases the risk of musculoskeletal problems, injury and stress, in turn affecting absenteeism, sick leave and the related health claims paid by employers.

“Safety is under the microscope in the offshore oil and gas sector,” says Dr. Maureen Carew, an Ottawa-based public health physician. As a result, “a number of very progressive, multi-faceted wellness programs have been launched. The sector is probably doing more in this area than most other employers in Canada.” The C-NLOPB contracted Dr. Carew to investigate whether physical fitness goals for workers, such as a healthy body weight, could improve the odds of survival in the event of an offshore emergency or a helicopter ditching.

Her extensive review of the available literature showed that even the most rigorous corporate programs are likely to achieve individual weight losses of just three to five kilograms over periods of 12 to 24 months. Although wellness strategies for the offshore workforce are expected to cut chronic illness and absenteeism, they offer few direct benefits for individuals attempting to evacuate a sinking helicopter, Dr. Carew concludes.

On the upside, a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day coupled with a healthier diet will pay safety dividends even without weight loss. “Even if a program achieved a modest average weight loss of just a couple of kilograms,” says Dr. Carew, “because there are so many workers on a rig, you would be making a significant improvement in metabolic health.”

The problem is it’s impossible to hop on a bike for a five kilometre ride or head for the park for some pick-up basketball on a rig 300 kilometres from shore. There are also safety considerations; it’s hard to exercise on the helicopter landing pad in full safety gear. “Creativity and experience have to come into play,” says Dr. Carew. “You have to be very innovative in what you can do.”

Following the Cougar crash, the Canadian offshore sector focused its attention on implementing the 29 recommendations of the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry (OHSI) report. The document covers everything from the provision of a first-response helicopter (that can hit the air in 20 minutes) to a ban on night flights (currently under review) to research and development in helicopter safety; it also calls for a number of changes to the basic survival training (BST) program.

For many years, everyone who worked offshore has had to complete a BST course, with refresher sessions required every three years afterward, says Barnes. As part of the course, the helicopter underwater escape training (HUET) provided by the Offshore Safety and Survival Centre (OSSC) simulates the experience of ditching in the open seas.

OFFSHORE PETROLEUM VITAL TO CANADA’S ECONOMY

It’s a huge undertaking with six production platforms (Thebaud, Venture, North Triumph, Alma, South Venture and Deep Panuke) clumped on the Sable Island Bank some 250 kilometres southeast of Halifax, and another four (Terra Nova, White Rose, Hibernia and Hebron), either fixed or floating, scattered across the Grand Banks, 300 to 400 kilometres almost due east of St. John’s.

“It’s certainly an important sector for the province and a vital contributor to the economy,” says Sean Kelly, manager of public relations for the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. “As a result, some people might think these economic benefits are weighed against safety considerations. But the industry has a very good safety record, and safety certainly doesn’t come second to the bottom line,” he says.

According to the detailed online maps maintained by the Newfoundland & Labrador Oil & Gas Industries Association (NOIA), there are also 239 development wells (both producing and abandoned) surrounding and feeding the production platforms and another 280 (and counting) exploration wells stretching down the coast of Labrador, around Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“It’s a strong and growing field,” says NOIA’s Deborah Inkpen, vice-president of policy and communications. “There’s a lot more [oil and gas] out there.” With more than 600 members, NOIA is the largest it has ever been and Inkpen estimates that there are some 17,000 people working in the operation and servicing of the offshore oil and gas sector.

In the last year, the training has been enhanced to make it “a lot more realistic,” says Barnes. The windows and seats in the simulator look and behave exactly like ones in use, even absorbing some of the impact when the machine “hits” the water. The new OSSC environmental theatre also duplicates the range of conditions — darkness, rain, lightning and high waves — that may be experienced during an emergency.

OSSC researchers have also been studying the use of dive masks (designed to keep salt water out of a passenger’s eyes) during HUET training, the difficulty in donning a marine abandonment immersion suit during an emergency or in rough seas, the operational performance of life rafts at sea and the recovery of rafts and personnel using a special scoop mounted on standby vessels.

“The worksites may be isolated, but the safety training is intensive, especially in emergency response drills,” says Barnes.

There are lots of targeted safety drills — how to launch a lifeboat, what to do when the alarm sounds, how to don safety gear and what workers can do if they end up in the water. If workers have to evacuate, they are trained and experienced to handle whatever might get thrown at them. “It has instilled a safety culture where workers not only strive to protect themselves, but the other people around them,” Barnes says.

WELLNESS APPROACH

Instead of treating the symptoms of safety lapses — industrial illnesses and injuries — a wellness safety program is another consideration, as it addresses some of the cultural roots of the problem. For the past six or seven years, a company called Definitions in St. John’s has been delivering a combination of lifestyle counselling, exercise training, nutritional information and human factors wellness programs to offshore oil and gas operators and their employees.

The company conducts job safety audits and prepares personal health plans for individual offshore workers. “It can be simply a series of small steps — little things like getting the proper sleep, drinking enough water, taking time to stretch and so on — that add up to a healthier lifestyle,” says company controller Tanya O’Neil. “It’s a win-win situation for both the employer and the employees,” she says. Staff also work closely with rig managers, crafting solutions for problems that may arise. “If we don’t have it, we can create it,” O’Neil says.

A 4,000 square foot bay in the company’s training complex mimics job conditions, equipment and even the scaffolding and ladders workers will encounter on the job site. “Before they go offshore, we can teach them the proper lifting, movement and working techniques that will prevent injuries,” says O’Neil. “We can also measure heart rate, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and the other metrics needed to prepare a post-offer/pre-employment fitness assessment.”

Perhaps the biggest risk is obesity, and the best way to improve health is by “getting inches off the bellies of oil field workers,” says O’Neil. Definitions staff work with the kitchens on the big rigs to create meal plans that ensure there are healthy options on every menu, together with the calorie and nutritional information workers can use to keep their health programs on track. “You’ve go to know your numbers,” to say safe, O’Neil says.

PLANNING FOR THE INEVITABLE

Terry Kelly, managing director of SMS Aviation Safety in Ottawa, says that the sector is “a pretty hostile environment. It’s not benevolent out there.”

As a result, safety is a “living and breathing” requirement. “They take it personally. You can’t lose people as happened in 2009 and not feel it.” Kelly was part of the expert committee assembled by the C-NLOPB to recommend to the board practical work plans to meet each of the 29 OHSI recommendations on helicopter safety.

The prescriptive approach traditionally used in drafting safety regulations just sets “the minimum things you have to do,” says Kelly. Performance goals are much more effective. They are “very dynamic and accommodate technological changes,” as well as acknowledge the individual and human factors that contribute to incidents.

He calls for a more proactive, risk-based systems approach. “We need to craft safety systems to understand and oversee the management of the risks in safety critical industries — such as aviation, healthcare and offshore oil and gas — where accidents can result in a potential loss of life.” This is also smarter, more cost effective management, critical at a time when “society has high expectations of regulators and industry, but limited funds are available for such oversight,” he says.

Dr. Mark Fleming from St. Mary’s University in Halifax says that the industry needs to realize that human error will occur. At a safety forum hosted in May 2013 by the C-NLOPB, he told participants: “You try to make it so that when you make a mistake it does not cause harm.”

The offshore sector has implemented multiple redundant systems, double checks and fail-safe mechanisms to accommodate the kinds of mistakes people typically make. Instilling a safety culture involves “thinking about the types of mistakes people are going to make, realizing that those mistakes are caused by a range of [cultural] factors and designing a system that can tolerate those mistakes,” he says. 

William M. Glenn is a writer in Toronto.

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