The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Safety and Accountability in Offshore Development

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted April 22, 2015

Just a few minutes after BP Group Chief Executive Robert Dudley addressed a CERAWeek luncheon crowd on post-Macondo efforts that have seen the company spend  more than $44 billion on Gulf response and cleanup, I talked with Center for Offshore Safety Executive Director Charlie Williams about the center’s work to increase the safety culture in offshore energy development. Williams, who was named to his position in March 2012, talked about systems approaches to safety and what the center has learned about offshore safety in its first annual performance report, issued earlier this month. Highlights of the conversation below.

What’s your reaction to Mr. Dudley’s post-Macondo report?

Charlie Williams at CERAWeekWilliams: “His assessment of how hard the industry worked together after (the accident) is one of the big stories. … The sense of dedication to collaboration and working together as an industry to improve things. It’s been good in the past. I think it’s never been better than it was after Macondo. I think the industry really banded together to make things better, and I think they’re continuing to do that, continuing to really put a lot of resources and dedication in that.

“It’s almost unmeasurable how much resources and people and money got put into how can we improve from where we were. What really moved me in all of this is how much dedication has been put into it and even continues. Five years now and we’re still putting this effort into it. I think it’s quite a tribute to the industry that we could do it and be even better than before.”

Even so, some want significant restrictions on offshore drilling. How has safety improved since 2010?

Williams: “One of the most fundamental things that we could do to ensure that we have long-term, effective safety is embedding the management of safety into business processes. So that, when you’re doing the planning, when you’re managing change, when you’re developing skills and knowledge, when you’re developing your hazard analysis, that when you do all of that, what’s embedded in that is to make all those decisions, all those plans in favor of safety.

“I think SEMS – Safety and Environmental Management Systems – does that. The Center for Offshore Safety is key to working together to understand how to make that even more effective than it’s ever been, to continuously learn and make it more effective. And I think that’s a key barrier to major incidents. I think it’s also a key foundation. I don’t think you can have a good safety culture without it. I think it supports a good safety culture. …

“Major incidents happen because hazards were not recognized, plans were not effective, operating procedures were not effective. And it happens because of the way you manage plans and execute your projects. So if you’re going to avoid major incidents, you have to make sure that you do that well every day, continuously day after day.”

What should Americans know about what industry has done on safety over the past five years?

Williams: “There were many people that had good safety and environmental management plans and were executing them well before Macondo. What’s really different since Macondo – besides the containment systems and new standards and all – what’s truly new is we created the Center for Offshore Safety. It was created by the industry for the industry. It’s a place where we can learn together, collaborate together and share together. So the knowledge about how to manage things safely is now shared in one place. It’s unprecedented. Companies had good ways of developing this data internally, but now we have a place that’s entirely focused, first on safety and environmental management, but most especially on sharing and learning together. That is new, and it has really been powerful. We’re seeing good results from that.”

What specifically is the center’s role in increasing industry’s safety culture?

Williams: “The thing is that we’ve been focused on at the Center for Offshore Safety is gathering the data. So we have learning from incident data, which is new. We have safety performance indicator data, which is new. We have audit data from the SEMS audits that we’ve collected in one place, which is new.

“We just issued our first-ever industry report on the state of safety based on the data of these real indicators. This allows us to really look at the industry and say what are the key places where we can make safety and environmental management systems better? And we now have that data, and we know where to work. The next part of our work then is to develop the practices to improve safety management. … We now have the data and a group that can focus on developing these good practices.

“It’s a focus and a methodology that frankly didn’t exist before even though people had good safety management systems. We hadn’t had this way to learn and focus and share together. Even people who had good programs in the past, when they participated in this they’ve been learning about things they want to work on, too. … I think that should be heartening to everybody if the people are identifying and finding things to work on.”

What has surprised you since you began to lead the center?

Williams: “People that have really top-notch systems were able through this process of auditing and using our tools and developing reports to find things that they wanted to work on, too. These weren’t non-conformances from a regulatory standpoint, just places where they said, oh, now that we’ve gone out and looked at this and learned more about it, we’d like to improve this part of our already good system. We’ve got data that surprised me. We’ve got data that shows up in a report and says that some of the operating procedures that are out there right now, the procedures themselves need to be improved.”

You’ve talked about the center collecting “forward-looking data” as a key element in advancing safety. What does that mean?

In the past we always tracked fires, explosions and spills. Now we’re collecting forward-looking data that helps us learn about the future and learn about the effectiveness (of programs) and feed that back in advance of anything happening. Maintenance on safety-critical equipment is actually one that’s new but we’ve identified others. And we’re going to be rolling those in as we go along. …

“The way we came up with these, and it’s part of safety management, is we identified the hazards, you identify what barriers you need to put in place to protect yourself from the hazard, and then the task is to always make sure those barriers are in place. Obviously, if you go back to those barriers and measure the health of the barriers, you also get a measure of the health of your (safety) system – because your system is supposed to be maintaining the barriers. So all of the safety performance indicators we have were built around barrier health. …

“It’s a key way of giving yourself the best assurance there isn’t going to be a problem. But it’s also a key way to get accountability and focus and training in the right place. … When leadership talks about what they really want, they can talk about what are the hazards here, what are barriers here and what are your personal responsibilities about these barriers.”

How have performance-based audits of company SEMS enhanced safety?

“It’s so much better than rule-based things, where you have a checklist and say we’re going to go inspect these 10 things – we’re going to inspect the relief valves and see if they’re OK. And that’s good, you have to have some of that. But it completely misses the point of performance, because it doesn’t really focus on what you have to do every day. … It changes the mindset where people say I checked the check sheet, so I must be OK.

“You’re only OK if you know the hazards, know the barriers and you keep those barriers in place, which is a continuous thing, not a check sheet or a periodic thing. The performance (evaluation) is: Are the barriers there, and are you maintaining them?”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.