Thursday, June 10, 2010

Oil rig culture can breed mistakes

Article by John Hofmeister in the Calgary Herald on 9 June 2010

Reflecting on the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill. He points out that whilst there are a number of possible technical failures that lead to the accident, evidence from other major accidents shows that human factors is likely to have had a major contribution.

He describes a deep water drilling rig as "many people, highly skilled, brilliant on the job, with decades of knowledge and comprehension of what they are doing, motivated by high pay and great benefits, working for two weeks on and two weeks off. A deepwater rig is also a village dedicated to a single task, yet organized by small neighbourhoods of specialty skills and independent businesses." It is a good example of an oil industry that has fragmented itself through the outsourcing because of economic drivers stemming from oil-price volatility and the anti-competitive requirements of most governments.

Hofmeister identifies chain of command and communications as the two human factors he expects to have been the greatest influence..

"Chain of command in high-risk endeavours is the most important human success factor. It must be clearly understood and must work under all circumstances." But on a drilling rig, individuals do not necessarily know who is charge. There are multiple chains of command from several different subcontractors and staff working alongside each other may barely known one another.

"In the worst cases, decision-making can lead to buck passing until no one knows where it stops. Legal contracts set the ground rules for who is responsible for what. When disputes arise, companies disagree, battle or reconcile at higher levels on or even off the platform." Efforts can be made to formalise the various chains, but "People are still people" who work for their own boss, and may have relatively little understanding of overall operation.

Person-to-person communications is the other factor. "People communicating can be respectful and polite; they can also be demeaning, abrupt or abusive."

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