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Are you striking the right balance between personal and process safety?

Posted on 21 June 2011

Peter Sharpe, Executive Vice President, WElls, Shell International Exploration & Production B.V.

Peter Sharpe, executive vice president wells for Shell, said that “it wasn’t until after Macondo that I realized I needed to strike a different balance between personal and process safety, that I needed to send different messages.”

Ever since the tragedy of Macondo last year, Shell’s executive VP of wells Peter Sharpe has been challenging himself with this question, and he hopes other industry leaders are too: Are you striking the right balance in your focus between personal and process safety?

“I’ve been part of a major Shell asset integrity process safety management program that had been driving the agenda at Shell globally post-Texas City, but I must admit it hadn’t fundamentally affected the way I went about my business,” Mr Sharpe said in his keynote address at the IADC World Drilling 2011 Conference & Exhibition last week in Copenhagen, Denmark. “I think if you had asked any of my staff what was the most important thing to me, almost universally the answer would’ve been around personal safety.”

He continued: “It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the risks of a major well control incident. … But it wasn’t until after Macondo that I realized I needed to strike a different balance between personal and process safety, that I needed to send different messages about what was important to me.”

In the time since Macondo, Mr Sharpe said, he has started visiting downstream facilities to see what lessons he could take from that segment of the industry. And while he was there, looking at triple redundancy on critical instrumentation with automated process controls in environments no less demanding than drilling, “I started to realize that we’d been blind for quite a long time and there was a lot to learn and improve,” he said.

He urged that senior management cannot be overly focused on the high-frequency, low-consequence events; they must ensure they’re appropriately focused on the major process safety risk as well. “In health terms, (personal safety is) kind of like cutting your arms. You cut your arm, your arm starts bleeding, and you have to do something immediately,” he described.

“Process safety is much more akin to having high blood pressure. … It’s often called the invisible killer. You may not know if you have it. Even if you know you have it, the temptation might be to put off the fix until later. You can ignore it. It’s much more difficult to fix as well. It takes long-term discipline.”

At Shell, new process safety metrics and incident investigation requirements have been established, and the HSSE control framework has been updated. An improvement plan covering competence, contingency plans and new technology is also being implemented.

Further, all this is being driven by a leadership focus on process safety, Mr Sharpe said. “I understand that leadership commitment alone won’t guarantee improved safety performance, but all the studies I’ve read suggest that it’s a key ingredient. In fact, some academic studies would argue that leadership attitude and personal commitment is the most important factor in determining safety performance.”

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