This page refects viewpoints on the political, economic, cultural, technological, and environmental issues that shape the future of the petroleum industry. Offshore
Magazine invites you to share your thoughts. Email your Beyond the Horizon manuscript to David Paganie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BEYOND THE HORIZON
In 2013, the UK marked the 25th anniversary of Piper Alpha and
the tragic loss of 167 offshore workers. Following the public enquiry
chaired by Lord Cullen, a broad range of commitments were agreed
on by the offshore industry to raise overall safety standards. However, more recent (and equally well documented) serious safety events
have served to question just how much real progress has been made
in truly tackling human error and the other principal causes related
to these types of events. What has become evident is that offshore
companies that fail to effectively manage human error are increasingly having a tough time predicting upcoming operating expenses.
Traditional and previously accepted operating risk assumptions are
being challenged (or even derailed), precisely at a time when regulators are increasingly demanding more assurance.
Incurring a serious safety event is never good news. It hits corpo-
rate scorecards and for offshore contractors in particular, can result
in embarrassed looks in front of highly valued and much sought
after customers. Fortunately, for most offshore companies, serious
safety events are a relatively rare occurrence. But it is precisely this
infrequency that lulls organizations into a false sense of security
and why their corrective actions (to address the problem) often fall
short of something that resembles a permanent “fx.”
The reason? Well if such events only happen on a rare occasion,
then surely corrective actions must be targeting the isolated behav-
iors of just a few rogue individuals. The assumption being that when
people execute work, deviations from policies or procedures must
also be a very rare thing. This line of reasoning – while palatable to
senior leadership demanding assurance that a repeat event is not
imminent – may not necessarily refect how work is truly executed.
The harsh reality might just be that while incurring serious conse-
quences may be rare, unauthorized deviations from policy and pro-
cedures are not. In fact, employees taking short cuts and risks might
be far more commonplace than companies would like to think.
To make matters worse, offshore companies may unknowingly be
fostering cultures that support a culture of “casual compliance.” How
so? Because if there is only about a 5% chance of anything going seriously wrong when a risk or short cut is taken, (i.e. human error),
then conversely, there must be a 95% chance of getting it right. In
other words, if risky behaviors result in saved time and money, then
individuals are actually more likely to receive positive reinforcement
and recognition for their efforts. The result? Individuals and teams
will almost certainly repeat the same behaviors next time around.
So in other words, human error is not really an error at all. In most
cases it is a deliberate and premeditated choice where individuals and
teams willingly take short cuts and risks because ultimately, they sincerely believe this is what they are being asked to deliver. A win-win
situation. Good for the company and good for the employees.
So corrective actions that address human error by simply target-
ing what appears to be the isolated behaviors of a few individuals
(nominally those directly involved in the serious safety event), will
inevitably fall short, because the problem they are attempting to fx
is generally much more systemic. And while offshore companies
are very adept at reacting to specifc and recognizable performance
problems such as equipment failures and downtime, they can fnd
it more challenging dealing with problems (such as human error)
which are harder to defne and whose roots lie deeply buried in how
organizations ultimately measure and reward performance.
So what is the answer? Well rather than continue with more of the
same, it may be time to step back and look at designing corrective actions that fundamentally re-examine how safety performance is routinely measured and rewarded. In other words, start shifting the focus
of safety performance from consequences to execution. Stop over relying on injury numbers and classifcations to paint the whole picture of
performance, but actively seek out and measure unauthorized deviations from job plans and documented work instructions – regardless of
whether they could have resulted in a potential injury or not. In short,
did the work consistently get executed as expected – and if not, then
why not? While this all sounds so easy, if an offshore production facility
or drilling rig is on non-productive time, then the combined pressures
placed on line supervisors to remedy the situation (whether perceived
or real), often act as a powerful infuencer to simply look the other way.
And as a result, another valuable insight is lost. So do not ever permit
your organization (either directly or indirectly) to ever reward behaviors that saved time and money, if a short cut was required to get you
there. That in itself only exasperates the problem further.
Such corrective actions, while not tackling human error directly,
will undoubtedly allow organizations to begin to better understand
the breadth and depth of the challenges accompanying human error. And it is only from this viewpoint that systemic fxes can effectively be designed and implemented and offshore companies can
fnally begin to achieve the lasting results they increasingly seek.
Avoid falling into the old trap of believing that human error simply
starts and ends with a few “bad apples.” Willingly accept and swallow the bitter pill that the behaviors (human error) resulting in a
serious safety event, may ultimately be far from isolated and more
likely, are simply a recognized and accepted way of how work is routinely performed. So if organizations truly want to “fx” human error
by changing behaviors at the worksite next time around, then it may
be time to begin by leading with a few different behaviors of their
own. First change how performance is recognized and rewarded,
and shift the focus of safe work from consequences to execution.
Peter V. Bridle
Pegasus Risk Management
‘Fixing’ human error