Lesson from the Gulf -- Safety Always Comes First

Missteps on the Deepwater Horizon underscore why safety should always be the first priority.

A recent article in The New York Times ("Workers on Doomed Rig Voiced Concern About Safety", www.nytimes.com), casts a rather chilling light on the safety culture of the parties involved in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. While BP has taken most of the heat (and rightly so) for its part in the rig explosion, it appears there is plenty of blame to go around.

The Times article cites a survey of the workers on the rig, which was commissioned by Transocean, the rig's owner, and conducted in the weeks prior to the explosion. Many of the workers indicated they "were concerned about safety practices and feared reprisals if they reported mistakes or other problems." Almost all of the workers felt they could raise concerns to their immediate supervisors -- as long as it didn't get back to management at Divisional or Corporate levels. "The company is always using fear tactics," one worker is cited as stating.

Some workers also expressed concern about poor equipment reliability due to a failure to perform scheduled maintenance that could slow or halt the drilling process. A separate equipment assessment cited in the article found "at least 26 components and systems on the rig that were in 'bad' or 'poor' condition." In addition, a maintenance audit conducted by BP last fall showed that "Transocean had left 390 maintenance jobs undone, requiring more than 3,500 hours of work."

Of course, BP isn't blameless, even in the face of these reports. The shortcuts it took to get the leased rig in operation on time and on budget appeared to have had fatal consequences. In a Congressional letter sent to former BP CEO Tony Hayward prior to his June 17 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, BP management stood accused of making "multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure. In several instances, these decisions appear to violate industry guidelines and were made despite warnings from BP's own personnel and its contractors."

What role the choices made by BP, Transocean and others ultimately played in the blowout at the rig remain to be defined. But clearly, taking safety for granted under the delusion that it "will probably be fine" -- as one BP official is quoted in the letter as stating -- is not the right approach. Look how well it worked on the Deepwater Horizon.

The lesson to take home here is that safety should always come first -- regardless of the industry in which you work. Unfortunately, it's an axiom all too often forgotten until it's too late.

It's also paramount that safety be driven from the top down in any organization. As part of that, upper-level managers must be willing to listen to, and act upon, safety or maintenance-related concerns from those working on the front lines -- whether they're on a drill rig, or on a construction jobsite.

Because safety is such an overriding concern, this issue comes with our annual Construction Zone Safety guide, as well as the inaugural issue of IPAF's Elevating Safety, sponsored by the International Powered Access Federation, an organization dedicated to the promotion of safe and effective use of powered access equipment worldwide. This new publication contains insights on a range of topics specific to working safely at heights.