Although the offshore industry has made significant improvements in safety performance across the board since the Piper Alpha disaster – which with 167 fatalities is still the world's worst offshore incident of its type to date – the potential dangers posed by fire, explosion, gas-escape and structural failure remain ever-present.
The nature of the working environment inevitably means that these risks persist. And while the industry itself has changed since that fateful night in July 1988 offshore workers are still not 100% safe in this dynamic and constantly evolving business. For example, the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Key Programme 2 concluded in 2007 that the number of drilling related accidents is rising – and not simply as a direct result of increased offshore activity.
The 'Play Your Part' offshore workforce involvement day organised by the HSE and held at Murrayfield in May – just a few weeks short of the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy – provides a timely opportunity to address the importance of staff awareness.
As independent H&S consultant, Richard Lightman, points out: "ensuring the safety of personnel on offshore drilling operations relies on an interface of multiple factors, but primarily comes down to good operating procedure, a systemic culture of safety – and a healthy chunk of personal responsibility."
Lightman's view echoes the comments of Jake Molloy, the general secretary of the Oil Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) who says "offshore workers have a right to be involved and are indeed obliged to get involved in day to day matters affecting their health and safety". However, with the UK offshore sector aiming to be the world's safest by 2010, what does this really mean?
"Mandatory basic training goes a long way towards equipping new entrants for the offshore workspace," Lightman explains "but there's a world of difference between learning helicopter escape drills and dealing with the realities, full time, in the North Sea. Those early days can be potential crunch-points – so it's important to look at some kind of mentoring scheme for new recruits."
Facilitating the adjustment is not the only area where offshore operators can sow the seeds of greater safety – the offshore environment is inherently hazardous, and it is not only new comers who need to be awake to the potential dangers.
Dr Mica Endsley, founder and President of SA Technologies, defined the concept of situation awareness (SA) as "the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future."
For those involved in offshore operations, the practical translation of this is the knowledge and understanding of the aspects of the work setting which impinge directly on good decision making, particularly in those areas which affect personal and team safety.
Clearly, given the interactive and intrinsically high-risk nature of their activities, offshore oil-drilling and gas-drilling crews need to have a consistently elevated SA, to ensure the safety of their operations.
According to recent research from the University of Aberdeen's Industrial Psychology Unit based on a review of SA in drilling incidents and interviews with industry drilling personnel, accident analysis revealed that nearly 70% of awareness mistakes were perceptual in origin. Interestingly, even amongst long-term offshore workers, feelings of isolation from home and family were cited as the principal contributory factor in reduced SA, ahead of elements such as fatigue and stress.
Addressing such issues in an essentially 'macho' work environment may be difficult, but some observers believe that it will pay dividends in the long run. As maritime psychologist, Dr Cho Xian, explains "there is a brewing sea of change in the industry, where the psychology of safety will ultimately be seen as important as the physicality of safety."
"There has been a lot of interest in the whole digital oilfield concept," says Lightman, "and from the perspective of personnel safety, real-time location could potentially offer the industry a lot." Real-time location systems (RTLS) have been tipped to explode globally by 2010 – growing by 80%, to represent a market worth more than $1.6bn. In the widest context of worker safety, being able to determine the location of workers in real time has significant implications for operational management.
Whatever RTLS may hold, the case for sharing H&S information has already been made by a number of UK initiatives, including the 'Step Change in Safety' and the government-led "Revitalising Health and Safety", which have seen significant improvements in safety performance.
The upshot of this has been the replacement of a number of personnel on board (POB) tracking systems with a single, integrated, web-based approach – the Vantage system – to track trip histories, training and expertise. With an existing role in holding safety and survival training records, it has the additional potential for greater development – and to be extended further, both in terms of the scope of information and its geographic and industrial influence.
Since being implemented offshore UK, a number of operators including Shell and BP have extended Vantage to their operations further afield, leading some in the industry to view it as the incipient de facto global standard.
The challenges of increasing cost pressures, an isolated workforce and the environment itself predicate a high standard of management of health and safety.
However, the global nature of offshore oil and gas drilling operations and the associated need to move both personnel and equipment from country to country – and between regulatory regimes – can prove challenging.
With commercial interests crossing international boundaries, as the International Regulators' Forum emphasise, sustainable safety performance is 'inseparable from, and interdependent with, best sustainable economic performance'.
In the end, although the psychology of safety will always remain of fundamental importance, it is probably this inescapable truth which represents the single strongest guarantee of workforce safety and offers the surest way to see the drilling related accident toll fall. If so, for the global offshore industry, it promises the best of all possible 'win-win' scenarios.