27 July 2012, Houston Chronicle, Houston, Texas – The deaths were never far away.
They hovered over the esoteric discussions of safety processes; they were brought up by members of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board who were conducting the two-day public hearing and by members of the audience who were married to offshore oil workers or who had lost a parent in a refinery accident.
For all the talk of what the industry could do to reduce future disasters, the company managers, safety experts and government officials gathered at the hearing were there because of what the industry has done poorly.
It hasn’t learned from past mistakes.
The safety board, once again investigating a disaster involving BP, released findings that bore a chilling similarity to earlier ones. Its preliminary findings from its investigation of the Deepwater Horizon blowout two years ago drew a direct line between that disaster and BP’s Texas City refinery explosion in 2005.
“It’s always puzzled me why a company like BP, with all the resources it has, is involved in the two worst accidents we’ve seen in the past 10 years,” board member John Bresland said.
The board led the most thorough investigation of the Texas City explosion, which killed 15 people and injured more than 170. It found, among other things, a corporate culture that focused on personal safety – preventing slips and falls, for example – rather than process safety – ensuring things don’t explode.
In the Deepwater Horizon case, the safety board found that BP didn’t take the lessons of Texas City offshore, and most of the industry and the government regulators for offshore drilling hadn’t either. Although companies have made improvements since the rig explosion, they still aren’t placing enough emphasis on averting disaster.
New industry guidelines still focus on tracing workplace injuries, lagging indicators that are easily documented after they happen.
Tracking a series of decisions from well designs through interpreting pressure tests on the rig floor that could result in catastrophe is much more difficult.
No single decision led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout that claimed 11 lives and seriously injured 17 workers. It was the cumulative effect of many smaller ones.
Looking for red flags
The offshore industry, like the refining industry before it, is just beginning to grasp the importance of monitoring such processes.
Sadly, it took a lagging indicator – the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history – to get its attention.
The safety board stressed the need to identify “leading indicators,” or red flags that could point to potential disaster. This starts long before the drilling begins. BP, for example, never analyzed whether its well design was more vulnerable to a blowout than other designs.
In another example, Transocean, the rig’s owner, didn’t have written guidelines for how workers should interpret pressure tests on a well or what to do if the test results were inconclusive, as they were on the Deepwater Horizon. Ultimately, one worker offered an unusual explanation for the results, then convinced others he was right. He wasn’t.
Humans, of course, make mistakes, which is why offshore companies should follow the lead of refiners and create more automated safety systems and processes to reduce human error, the safety board found.
Poor data collection
The agency also stressed the importance of corporate culture in reinforcing safety. BP, more than any other company, should have understood this after Texas City, yet even within its own organization, the lessons of process safety failures in one division didn’t translate to another.
“It’s important that these issues be addressed at the top of the organization,” said Don Holmstrom, the safety board’s regional director.
The offshore industry frequently touts its safety record, but the safety board’s probe found much of the data may be lacking. “Near misses” typically aren’t required to be reported. Neither the industry nor its regulator, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, tracks “kicks” or hydrocarbon releases that can indicate a potential disaster.
The industry has opposed reporting near-miss data, calling it overly burdensome, Holmstrom said, even though other countries track such incidents. As a result, the industry lacks data it can use to improve performance and avert potential accidents, he said.
The burden of collecting data pales against the burden now borne by the families of the 11 men killed aboard the Deepwater Horizon.
Dead are owed a debt
Once again, it has taken the loss of life to force change on the industry.
Their deaths, like those in Texas City before them, are a painful wake-up call.
The offshore industry owes them a debt.
Loren Steffy, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Follow him online at blog.chron.com/lorensteffy, www.facebook.com/LorenSteffypage and twitter.com/lsteffy.