HSE&T Corner: 7 guiding principles for drilling industry leaders to sustain focus on process safety

Posted on 30 January 2013

Leaders in the drilling industry must recognize organizational safety as a whole, understand how it must be managed and identify where it tends to break down in order to take the next step in preventing catastrophic events. Specific practices relevant to prevention should be adopted, such as anticipation, inquiry, execution and resilience.

Leaders in the drilling industry must recognize organizational safety as a whole, understand how it must be managed and identify where it tends to break down in order to take the next step in preventing catastrophic events. Specific practices relevant to prevention should be adopted, such as anticipation, inquiry, execution and resilience.

By Stuart Johnston, BST Solutions

Catastrophic event prevention is a critical safety concern for all oil and gas-supporting industries. The challenge is that while process safety has continued to advance in the sophistication of its systems and procedures, catastrophic events continue to occur. Retrospective views of major incidents consistently show us why: Technical failures are enabled by breakdowns in the organizational cultures. Simply put, safety systems are only as effective as the cultures in which they operate.

Culture shapes behavior, and behavior is how systems are implemented. To take the next step in catastrophic event prevention, leaders in the drilling industry must focus on organizational safety – the context within which technical and management systems function. What’s needed is to recognize organizational safety as a whole, understand how it must be managed and identify where it tends to break down.

We have identified seven principles that can guide leaders in the drilling industry as they seek to improve process safety:

1. Know the difference between personal safety and prevention of catastrophic events.

People at all levels of the organization need to understand the difference between managing personal safety and preventing catastrophic events. In many organizations, there is a misleading belief that a low injury rate means that safety is well managed. The fallacy of this belief was made dramatically clear in the Macondo tragedy, where 11 people were killed in a process event on the same day that the operation received an award for its excellent injury rate. People throughout the organization should understand the organization’s goals, the general nature of risks and the systems and programs that are used to manage those risks.

2. Have the right technical and management systems in place – and ensure they are implemented as intended.

While there is a generally accepted definition of the types of systems needed to manage the risk of catastrophic events, system creation is only the first step. For systems to be effective, they must be implemented as intended, continuously operated as intended and monitored for proper use by responsible leaders.

3. Develop a culture that supports consistent and rigorous use of technical and management systems.

Safety technical and management systems will be used rigorously only if people within the organization understand the overall vision for safety and the values that support that vision. In an organization where general functioning is poor, we tend to see compliance rather than commitment. But even when functioning is strong, if the difference between personal safety and process safety is not clear, lapses in the use of catastrophic event prevention systems will continue to occur.

4. As leaders, act in ways that promote identification of exposure and reduction of risk.

Culture is driven by leadership. It is important for leaders at all levels to act in ways that support organizational safety. In addition to practices that create a general safety-supporting culture, leaders should adopt specific practices relevant to preventing catastrophic events, including:

• Anticipation – encouraging active analysis of data to identify potentially serious risks. This means having a passion for encouraging reporting of near-misses and other “non-events” with serious potential.

• Inquiry – preventing cognitive bias and “group think” from leading to poor safety decisions. Promoting open dialogue and dissenting opinions that receive active and serious consideration helps avoid normalization of deviance and decisions based on flawed and unstated premises.

• Resilience – enabling the organization to quickly react to and recover from unexpected deviations in performance. These behaviors relate to the expectations established around how decisions are made in non-routine situations and the way the organization reacts in the aftermath of those decisions.

5. Ensure “consequence management” systems support critical prevention activities.

Within organizations, people receive feedback on what is expected and valued, not only through interaction with peers and leaders but also through “organizational sustaining systems.” Examples include performance evaluation, how promotion decisions are made, who receives awards and the criteria for bonuses. When these systems are not aligned with the organization’s stated safety vision, the credibility of the vision is undermined. It is important to align these systems with both personal and process safety goals as those two outcomes result from different behaviors.

6. Make sure the right skills are available and assign roles and responsibilities with attention to clarity, alignment, coordination and communications.

In most organizations, the people responsible for activities central to the prevention of catastrophic events are different from those responsible for personal safety systems. For example, engineering and maintenance departments generally have a large role in catastrophic event prevention. Ensure that the various departments with responsibilities for key aspects of catastrophic incident prevention coordinate activities appropriately, communicate effectively and are clear about where primary responsibility lies.

7. Have the right metrics in place to detect changes in exposure and ensure focus on key processes and procedures.

One reason organizations sometimes focus more attention on personal safety than catastrophic event prevention is because personal safety has a visible outcome measure. For catastrophic events, no metric is so universally accepted. Even where there is an outcome metric, e.g., API’s “process safety event” metric, the number of events that occur in any location is small. As a result, leaders tend to focus attention elsewhere and take for granted the processes that help prevent catastrophic events. Organizations can bring more attention to these key processes by establishing leading indicators that measure changes in exposure and the effectiveness of exposure control systems.

Taking the next step

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. While progress has been made in prevention of catastrophic events, we continue to see too many of these incidents. Catastrophic event prevention must move from its position of sole, or disproportionate, focus on the safety technical and management systems to a comprehensive focus that encompasses the broader elements of organizational safety as well.

This article is based on a presentation at the 2012 IADC Critical Issues Middle East Conference & Exhibition, 4-5 December, Dubai.

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