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Oil industry, BP still haven’t learned from fatal mistakes

Oil industry, BP still haven’t learned from fatal mistakes thumbnail

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.


4 Comments on "Oil industry, BP still haven’t learned from fatal mistakes"

  1. BillT on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 1:32 pm 

    Why expect any corporation to be honest & safe? They have not been concerned with anything but profits for the last 30+ years. And that is STILL their major objective. What’s a few hundred dead or an ocean killed if it means billions in their pockets? And why hasn’t the Exxon Valdez fines and restitution been paid after what 10 years or more? Because they don’t intend to pay them. Nor do they intend to pay the majority of the BP Gulf blowout expenses. Wait and see.

  2. Kenz300 on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 1:36 pm 

    Profits before safety and the environment.

    We need sane regulations to protect people and the environment from individual and corporate greed.

    Republicans in Congress want to end the EPA and take the US back to a time when rivers caught fire in America.

  3. DC on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 7:36 pm 

    Thats right BillT, Exxon was never held to account for the damage it did, and Prince William sound is still polluted, and will be for what, centuries more? longer even? The prestitute amerikan media I dont think even once mentioned Exxon basically evaded its fines while the GoM was burning. W/E ‘damages’ BP has to pay out, the US govt will simply re-imburse through some back-channel deal. Or if that fails, they just print 50Billion or so and fed-ex it to BP, w/e is simpler. The US govt rescued GM from its own incompetence, why not BP eh?

  4. BillT on Thu, 26th Jul 2012 1:09 am 

    DC. Correct. No large corporation is allowed to fail no matter how stupid it is. And then there are the TBTF banks that are skimming billions in bonus for their owners and taking the taxpayers to the poor house. It is all a mad rush to break the middle class and turn the world into Lords and serfs again. But, peak everything has made their game more obvious as they are racing against a world wide collapse of their ponzi scheme.

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