The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Managing Continuous Improvement in Offshore Safety

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted May 2, 2013

In an interview with Fuel Fix, Charlie Williams, director of the Center for Offshore Safety, fields a question about the perceptions surrounding the safety of drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico:

“I think the biggest misconception is that not much has been done, when there has been a tremendous amount of effort by the industry and by regulators in moving this forward. … There has been more collaboration, cooperation and improvement in working together to make things better than I think we have ever done before.”

Offshore Safety

Steadily improving offshore safety in oil and natural gas development was the main reason for the center’s creation and Williams’ selection as director last year. The center gathers industry practices that foster safe and responsible operations, shares the information and helps operators improve their safety and environmental management systems (SEMS). The center also helps companies synch their SEMS with new regulations from the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Companies must submit the first audit of their SEMS programs to BSEE in November.

During a conference call with reporters this week, Williams stressed industry’s commitment to continuous improvement of safety:

“We think that SEMS is absolutely critical as a driver to this continuous improvement process. What SEMS focuses on is actually completely embedding safety in the way you manage your business and you manage your projects when you make operational decisions. … The emphasis is on safety leadership … and (establishing) skills and knowledge in your workforce.”

Williams elaborates in the Fuel Fix interview:

“(BSEE’s) James Watson has said that he wants audits to be a learning tool, and the Center for Offshore Safety wants them to be a learning tool and find areas of improvement. But because we come from a culture of inspections and prescriptiveness, people still have the concern that it is going to be an exercise around finding faults and issuing incidents of non-compliance and not really improving things. … We are going to continually improve and the proof will be in the results. The proof can only be in the results. Ten years from now we have to be better than five years from now. … When it comes to managing safety, you have to manage it for the long term and you can’t think about it as an initiative where you can stop with what you have already accomplished. It is about capabilities of organizations to manage change and things that need this constant attention and constant improvement. It is not something we are ever going to be done with. That does not mean we are not improving – it just means we have to continually improve.”

This is an important distinction for industry, but also for the U.S. public. Industry’s commitment to continually improving safety in deep-water operations is a moral obligation – to our workers, to the American people and to the environment. It’s also sound business. The quality required in safety programs that will ensure responsible, long-term development is unlikely to be “inspected” in.

Rather, quality comes from companies building safety programs and processes – and the monitoring systems so that those programs keep improving. That’s not diminishing the role of enforcement; it’s saying that the best safety programs and monitoring mechanisms will come from industry. Erik Milito, API director of upstream and industry operations, described industry’s safety commitment as forward and proactive – versus an approach driven by a government checklist:

“Safety is much broader than that. We’re creating a mindset that we’re always asking about (safety).”


“It’s key that the oil and natural gas industry continue to provide reliable and affordable energy from our domestic supplies. But obviously that has to be done safely and in a way that protects the environment, protects the public and protects all of our stakeholders. It’s really the goal of the Center for Offshore Safety and the programs that we have to both enable and continue this lasting commitment the industry has to this continuous improvement and to continue raising the bar as to how we manage safety.”


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.