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Focus on communication and process critical to helping drillers manage evolving risks amid increasing automation

By Stephen Whitfield, Associate Editor

Drillers have seen an influx of automated equipment in recent years, and learning how to incorporate this automation onto the rig while maintaining a strong safety culture can be more of a challenge than it may appear on the surface. At the 2020 IADC HSE&T Conference in Houston, a panel of experts discussed the technical and organizational elements to these challenges, looking at the things rig managers and workers can do to adapt to the learning curve they face as their companies move away from manual systems.

Neil Hall, Vice President of HSE for Diamond Offshore, said that, drilling contractors must consider how employees can safely interact with new equipment to prevent injuries stemming from automated machines accidentally hitting or catching workers.

Michael Lawson (center), VP of HSE&T at Valaris, said that a crew’s competencies with manual processes may regress as they become more comfortable with automated equipment. In this photo from the 2020 IADC HS&T Conference in Houston, Neil Hall (left) and Mike Truitt (right) look on as Mr Lawson answers a question during an HSE&T contractor panel.

To that end, spatial interaction and object recognition in automated equipment is critical for ensuring worker safety. “There are a number of aftermarket systems out there that can recognize people, recognize when somebody’s getting too close to a piece of equipment, and then it can either set an alarm off or stop the equipment going forward. Technology is helping us get there,” Mr Hall said.

He also discussed the influx of new information that automated equipment provides to drillers, and how processing that information can lead to communication issues.

“We get a lot more information these days than we’ve ever gotten from a piece of equipment,” he said. “A driller 10 or 15 years ago had a manual brake, some gauges to look at, strip tank levels to monitor, and that was pretty much it. He could open a window, speak to the drill crew, and give them direct instruction. Now you have them in an isolated room, another person sitting next to him, and six screens for these people to look at. On top of his drilling parameters, he’s getting 400 alarms and notifications each day. That’s a huge distraction for somebody who’s not only trying to drill a well but also manage his crew.”

Information overload was a popular topic of discussion during the panel. Mr Hall said that, as younger generations of workers enter the industry with a greater familiarity to a hyper-connected world, they are better suited to transition to increasingly automated operations. That familiarity can be good and bad for drilling companies, however. Michael Lawson, Vice President of HSE&T at Valaris, noted that, as crews become more comfortable with automated equipment, their skills and competencies with manual processes may regress.

Companies must keep in mind that manual and automated processes require different skillsets, Mr Lawson said, so this must be taken into consideration when incorporating automation into operations. He also said that much of the information generated from automated equipment bear little relevance to a driller’s primary function and discerning the usefulness of new information can be a challenge.

“I would just caution, from an organizational standpoint, what are we expecting an individual to do? How are we expecting them to perform? For us as HSE professionals, we cannot lose sight of what we’re expecting them to do. Fundamentally, that’s to maintain well control. That is the essence of our business,” Mr Lawson said.

JR North, Drilling Engineer at Norton Energy Drilling, said managing that particular challenge is a matter of training.

“As we bring in new equipment, we’re always cautious to make sure our training is up to date,” Mr North said. “Controlling the amount of information that we’re asking them to record, too, is important, as well as looking at the type of paperwork we’re asking them to do and making sure it doesn’t conflict with their responsibilities to watch the whole rig.”

With the rapid growth of data analytics in rig operations, as well as the emergence of artificial intelligence platforms, the panelists addressed the best ways for organizations to maintain a focus on procedural discipline while being open and adaptive to an ever-increasing pace of change.

Mr Lawson pushed back against the idea of artificial intelligence as a “panacea for all of our problems.” A natural tendency is for companies to fall in love with new equipment and, in the process, lose sight of the technology and workflows that worked for them in the past, he said.

“If we look at our HSE performance from a number of different measures, whether it’s incident rate, total recoverables or just hurt severity rates, we’ve seen a remarkable improvement across the industry over the past decade. Most of that has been achieved without large reams of data, predictive analytics, and all these complex KPIs that, ultimately, a lot of our organizations don’t truly understand,” Mr Lawson said.

Mike Truitt, Director of HSE at Independence Contract Drilling, said that maintaining procedural discipline within an organization is a matter of communication between leadership and the rig floor.

“The more that the operator digs into this information (generated by automated technologies) and looks at it, the more pressure the rig manager feels. This is something that’s always being communicated, and if we don’t learn how to communicate that properly, we’re going to be in a situation where we’re not taking all the necessary steps to follow our procedures,” Mr Truitt said. “We’ve got to be mindful of how we’re passing the information down to our employees. That’s ultimately going to give us our results.”

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