It is through events like the 2014 HSE Excellence for Offshore Operations Forum where the ideas that truly foster progress first take form.

HSE Leaders Share Their Strategies

One takeaway: The first step to an effective risk management approach is to divest from the outcome and focus on the execution.

Many of the offshore oil and gas industry's top health, safety, and environmental experts came together in Houston recently at the 2014 HSE Excellence for Offshore Operations Forum with the goal of sharing innovative strategies associated with managing risk while sustaining productive operations in an inherently dangerous business.

Representatives of many of the major players in offshore operations brought a breadth and depth of knowledge and experience to vibrant discussions that spanned a full range of topics, including system controls, human factors, competency and training, regulatory controls, and emerging global trends. Many of the issues presented and the solutions discussed at this forum serve a wider interest than offshore oil and gas operations. They have application across a wide range of industries in the business community at large.

I was the 2014 conference's chairman. The statements below represent my insider view and a cross-section of the results of two days of thought-provoking presentations, dynamic roundtable sessions, and behind-the-scenes discussions with business leaders whose responsibilities span the globe.

Safety Management Systems
The first challenge is to remove all barriers to safety from the working environment. This may represent a huge effort, but any movement in this direction is a desirable accomplishment. The next step is implementing a robust and comprehensive management system that breaks down silos. Too often, organizational silos segregate functional elements of an organization. The process of implementing a safety management system offers the opportunity for a more integrated approach to those functions and can help drive change in a direction that further enhances an enterprise-wide culture of safety and regulatory compliance.

Human Error
Similarities exist between the critical nature of safe operations in the airline industry and the offshore oil and gas industry. Eighty percent of accidents are credited to human error. Airline pilots receive an exceptional level of training in simulators and in the cockpit, so why did the most experienced pilot in the KLM fleet attempt to take off from Tenerife Airport in the Canary Islands without clearance from the control tower, resulting in the deaths of 583 people when his 747 collided with a Pan Am flight already on the runway? Do pilots need additional training? Would that have made a difference at Tenerife?

Professional pilots sometimes suffer from “press-on-itis" and “trip over at landing" syndrome. "Press-on-itis" is the desire to complete a long, arduous trip no matter what the conditions. Safety may be compromised on the final approach to the runway when the landing is complicated by storms or other hazardous conditions, but a tired pilot, driven by the desire to complete the trip (or in the case of the KLM pilot, the desire to start the next leg of a trip) unwisely presses on rather than acceding to the prevailing conditions. "Trip over at landing" syndrome describes the consideration that the flight is over at touchdown, allowing awareness of safety and good decision-making to trail off while taxiing to the gate, a time when many accidents occur.

Both syndromes are exacerbated by a plethora of factors, such as fatigue, stress, and excessive workload. Experts in this area recommend eliminating the potential for errors throughout the process by eliminating the potential for errors in the planning phase of work design. The use of checklists with cross-checking by a second qualified individual can minimize the potential for cloudy judgment.

Safety vs. Productivity
A noted expert in software and systems safety states that accidents are not inevitable, nor are they the price of productivity. The business environment inherently creates tension between the desire for safe operations and a quest for profits.

Risk management systems help to institutionalize a common safety language, break down silos, increase awareness at all levels in the organization, and facilitate analysis and prioritization of work in a manner that helps balance the tension between safety and profits. Making the management of safety more efficient and more focused through the use of a management system makes safety less costly by integrating it more seamlessly into normal business operations.

Stop Work Authority
Stop Work Authority (SWA) rose in prominence in the offshore regulatory arena following the catastrophic events of the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo blowout and explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which resulted in the deaths of 11 workers and a massive oil spill. SWA is more effective when employees have a solid understanding of what the company acknowledges to be “unsafe” operations. Documenting what actions employees should always take and those they should never take is a step in the right direction, but SWA requires more.

The story is told of an HSE vice president participating in an executive committee meeting where the CEO was questioning the reluctance of employees to utilize SWA in the field. Once that discussion concluded, the topic switched to budget cuts. The CEO announced a 30 percent across-the-board cut to all departments. The VP of HSE spoke up that this level of cut was too deep for his department to absorb and if implemented would impact the safety of operations. All his points were overruled by the CEO, who was determined to see the cuts implemented by the end of the next quarter. The VP reminded the CEO of their discussion about SWA only minutes before and questioned how employees could be expected to stop work when he, as VP of HSE, could not call for a stop to the 30 percent cuts that threatened the safety of overall operations.

A better approach than delegating SWA to employees is the development of procedures and the design of work processes that do not put employees in the position of having to decide whether what they have been asked to do is unsafe. Standard work processes should always be made safe.

Regulatory Baseline
Regulatory agencies provide a baseline with which businesses operating under the agency’s authority are required to comply. This baseline, however, does not guarantee the complete safety of an operation. Companies that merely comply with regulatory mandates still retain some exposure to risk.

Culture of Safety
An operational culture of safety begins with the clear communication of roles and responsibilities throughout the organization augmented by a holistic approach to risk management through the utilization of modeling tools and management systems. Effective barrier management developed with the use of advanced bowtie charts helps ensure barriers are in place to prevent an incident from occurring, as well as mitigate the impact of an adverse event should all preventative measures fail. This also should drive effective development and implementation of administrative and engineering controls, which create a safe working environment and work practices that foster a safety mindset.

Risk Management
What happens at the work site has a direct correlation to the organizational culture. Therefore, the first step to an effective risk management approach is to divest from the outcome and focus on the execution. There is no distinction between an incident and no incident. In other words, the fact that there was no incident does not mean that the work was performed safely.

Focusing solely on the number of incidents which occur over a period of time has little meaning. How the work processes are designed and carried out have meaning. In addition, focusing attention only on the individuals directly involved in the incident, writing new procedures, mandating remedial training, or implementing disciplinary measures after the fact ignores the larger picture of a workplace environment that may be spawning risky situations throughout the operation on a daily basis. Unless that issue is fully addressed all the way to the top of the organizational structure, including members of the executive team, then the culture that produced the incident may very well remain intact, and future incidents are all but guaranteed.

Solving Problems By Putting Best Practices to Work
The oil and gas industry serves the needs of an energy hungry world. But, unfortunately, sometimes the rush to quench this thirst obscures the lens of safety through which operations in the oil and gas industry must be viewed and executed if safety is to exist as the priority most companies claim it to be. HSE professionals stand on the side of safety. They clean, polish, and focus that lens daily in service as key barriers to a disaster that awaits the unwary.

Yet many of the thousands of HSE professionals, in sometimes remote regions of the globe, never receive even one word of thanks from the busy public whose lives are certainly enriched and made safer through their efforts. Let me honor their work now and encourage everyone who reads these words to do so in their own way.

When experienced, knowledgeable professionals such as those who attended this event come together in common purpose to share best practices and discuss relevant issues, workable solutions to problems that challenge the business community can be found. And it is through events like the 2014 HSE Excellence for Offshore Operations Forum--produced by American Leaders, a Chicago-based member of the Fleming Group--where the ideas that truly foster progress first take form.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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