Lessons From Deepwater Horizon are Particularly Relevant Today
President Trump’s recent announcement that his administration will no longer waive sanctions on nations that import oil from Iran demonstrates the economic and diplomatic advantages provided by America’s surging oil and natural gas production. The U.S. produced 10.9 million barrels of oil each day last year, breaking a record dating back to 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration. Today, U.S. oil production is at an all-time high and is anticipated to increase another 2 million barrels per day by 2020.
As America leverages its vast domestic energy resources and puts the nation on a path toward eventual “energy independence,” it is vital that U.S. energy producers be mindful of the past and not let safety become an afterthought as we seek to meet our energy needs and pump more oil and gas.
It was nearly a decade ago on April 20, 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling facility experienced a catastrophic failure resulting in significant loss of life and environmental consequences. Numerous investigations, both governmental and non-governmental, pointed to several technical issues as the cause of the Deepwater Horizon incident, including failure of a Blow-out Preventer, improper well design, and failure of redundant safety systems.
But underneath all those technical problems with Deepwater Horizon, and at the heart of many catastrophic incidents across high-hazard industries, were human and organizational problems. There are frequently consistent gaps in the balance between production and safety, a misalignment of short-term and long-term goals, and a lack of employee engagement that is essential to creating a safer organizational culture.
In our work advising high-risk industries, including oil and gas, we have found that many company board rooms tend to focus more on short-term concerns such as worker injury rates and company productivity than longer-term concerns such as asset reliability and process safety. In a 2018 survey of executives at more than 350 major corporations worldwide conducted by DuPont Sustainable Solutions, nearly 93 percent noted that productivity is extremely influential to investment decisions. But when asked how influential asset reliability and reducing catastrophic incidents are, the number dropped significantly, even though these are critical to ensuring long-term productivity. Increased productivity and improved safety cannot be considered mutually exclusive.
There also appears to be a significant gap between the focus on employee safety and that of process safety incidents. Roughly 72 percent of survey respondents report discussing employee safety regularly in board meetings. However, process safety is discussed by executives less than half the time. Of course, safety of employees is critical in any organization, and it tends to be more visible to the organization. Process safety incidents, however, while less frequent, tend to be catastrophic, and frequently bring with them significant reputational and financial consequences. Process safety should be equally important as employee safety.
Finally, there is lack of workforce engagement in safety management processes and activities among many high-hazard companies, which might be the most important determinant of operational safety success or failure. There is a belief across all industries that implementing more systems or processes can strengthen business performance, but this creates a dependent culture where success relies on procedures and oversights.
Instead, companies should better engage employees and empower them to raise concern should they observe risk and hazardous operational conditions. After all, the day-to-day workforce constitutes most of the company and is the first line of defense when an incident occurs. Leveraging employees’ everyday knowledge and experience, and empowering them to act to prevent risk, will help establish a strong safety culture within the company that can help prevent major incidents.
Leveraging America’s vast energy resources can greatly enhance our economic and national security, but it is important that in doing so we don’t make safety an afterthought. When incidents occur, it can be easy to play “whack-a-mole” by addressing the problem at hand and then returning to business as usual until the next incident occurs. Instead, we must learn from the past and be vigilant to ensure catastrophic accidents do not repeat themselves.
Nicholas Bahr is the Global Director of Operational Risk Management and Process Safety at DuPont Sustainable Solutions. Alfonsius Ariawan is a Global Solutions Architect for DuPont Sustainable Solutions. DuPont Sustainable Solutions (DSS) is a leading provider of world-class operations consulting services to help organizations transform and optimize their processes, technologies, and capabilities.