Deepwater Horizon: Occupational Safety Steps into the National Spotlight

Along with mixed feelings toward its accuracy, the new Hollywood blockbuster "Deepwater Horizon" has garnered a broader discussion on occupational safety and the environmental risks of the industrial world. It's a good forum to talk through how we should mitigate those risks.

American consumers – busy with the hustle and bustle of everyday life – do not often think about where the gasoline they fill their cars with any given day to get to work or take their kids to soccer practice comes from. This film demystifies the physical and environmental challenges real-life oil rig workers face day in and day out in order to bring that gas to the pumps at our stations, putting into perspective just how much we take their work for granted.

But it's more than just exhaustion and treacherous waters. Oil rig workers are also shown facing major emotional pull due to being away from their families for 21 days on end, humanizing the aftermath of one of the world's largest man-made disasters that tragically resulted in the loss of 11 lives.

The reality is, aboard Deepwater Horizon were more than just BP employees – contractors and those contractors' subcontractors were there, too. In fact, more than 90 percent of oil and gas workers in the field today are contractors.

The movie oversimplified the reasons for the incident, which is a complicated and layered issue, in order to fit into the typical Hollywood model of "hero vs. villain." But the real-life Macondo incident – moreso than the movie – highlighted a growing risk in the world that's been trending for 100 years and not stopping any time soon: Businesses are moving more and more toward a contractor model and outsourcing, not necessarily off-shoring.

While utilizing contractors makes great business sense because it allows for deeper specialization, higher quality, and reduced costs, risk is naturally introduced when people outside of the company are hired. The fact is, culture simply cannot be controlled from one company level to another. Failure to properly vet and prequalify contractors before hiring could make the difference when it comes to preventing catastrophic incidents.

Since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, companies have put a lot of money into thinking how they can vet and manage suppliers better – a common phenomenon when major accidents occur.

Today, the contractor vetting is not yet a standard process, but it is rapidly moving that direction. Roughly 20 percent of suppliers are vetted for multinational industrial companies; for those employers that are left, we suggest the following best practices:

  • A rigorous pre-qualification before contractors can come on site
  • Ongoing monitoring of potential changing requirements and contractors' good standings
  • An annual update of accident records

Traditionally, these data have all been kept track of by companies' busy HR managers buried in piles of spreadsheets, but new technology solutions are exponentially enhancing the process to be systemized across an organization by providing a single source and location for vetting, onboarding, and managing contractors.

While we cannot speculate what exactly could have been done differently that fateful day in 2010 due to the multitude of factors that led to the incident's occurrence, clearer procedural matters and safety precautions could have undoubtedly prevented several of the missteps.

Jared Smith, co-founder of Avetta, has helped to revolutionize the way global organizations source suppliers, mitigate supply chain risk, and implement sustainable business practices. He has held many leadership roles within the company since the early days of Avetta, a brand that has produced an industry prequalification and auditing standard. He is driven to educate suppliers and global companies about the business and how it can positively impact their employees, strengthen their business, and save lives. He has a bachelor’s degree in Finance and Physics from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Posted on Oct 07, 2016

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