If drilling companies are to make any headway in the drive to improve safety in the workplace, then part of the puzzle is to delve deep into the minds of its workforce.

The oil and gas sector is taking the lead from the aviation industry, which has reacted quickly to the realization that human error, rather than mechanical failure, underlies most accidents and incidents.

Understanding human factors involves gathering information about human abilities, limitations and other characteristics, and applying it to tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs and the work environment. This knowledge can then be translated into design, training, policies or procedures to help improve human performance.

On the drilling floor, long shifts, heavy physical labor and harsh environmental conditions can understandably take their toll on a worker’s body and mind. Studies into these conditions, particularly mental aptitude, and the effect it has on decision-making, planning, problem-solving, judgment, alertness and assessing potentially hazardous situations, are only just emerging. Detailed work by industrial psychology professionals and the use of simulators have increased in the years following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, as human factors, as well as technical issues, were deemed to have played a part in the incident.

Drillers in the future will not only have to prove that they understand how to use tools, run line and man control panels competently but also recognize and alert superiors when they or a fellow worker might be suffering from fatigue or cognitive impairment. There must also be a more transparent safety culture where workers and management can feel comfortable and confident for reporting such behaviors.

Safety on course

Aviation leaders have been using crew resource management (CRM) training for several decades, and this is now making its way into oil and gas. The International Well Control Forum (IWCF) has launched an online training course to help reduce human error in well control incidents. Developed by experts in human factors and strategic leadership, this is offered free of charge to the industry through an online portal.

Research applied in the Well Operations Crew Resource Management (WOCRM) course found that better understanding of leadership, situational awareness and decision-making can significantly lessen the impact of human factors on major well incidents.

Well operations crews have a resource they can use to boost their knowledge of nontechnical skills, including communication and teamwork, using a single internationally available course. Participants also can learn how to look out for warning signs of stress and fatigue in themselves and colleagues, which can potentially affect performance in highly hazardous work environments.

Lessons learned

Major incidents make everyone in the industry and wider society sit up and take notice. Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon are prime examples. However, while steps have been taken to prevent blowout occurrences, lessons must always be learned, particularly as the number of blowouts has continued at a concerning rate since 2010.

There also has been necessary attention to losttime incidents, which can affect individual workers. Companies must not lose sight of the risk of a larger process accident. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) works with the industry to set regulations for safe and healthy environments for workers. This includes a standard outlining the importance of a hazard-free work environment, with responsibility lying directly with employers and workers.

OSHA identifies that the number of fatalities in U.S. oil and gas is seven times higher than in other industries. It outlines that workers tend to have the best knowledge about hazards on the work site and can offer insights into how they could be controlled. OSHA makes recommendations for many technical hazards, but for fatigue and stress, it does not have regulatory guidance. Therefore, additional resources, such as the WOCRM course, have been welcomed to inform workers and employers best.

The work of IWCF aligns well with OSHA’s activity to understand more about the impact of workers’ behavior on hazard reduction. Both make recommendations that employers and fellow workers pay attention to physical, mental and emotional signs, ask colleagues about their health and wellbeing, and monitor conditions such as tiredness or irritability. Employers are advised to limit the use of extended shifts and issue tasks that require heavy physical labor or intense concentration to the beginning of shifts.

In the U.K., changes to working patterns in the North Sea have been controversial with unions claiming threeweek on/three-week off rotations (3/3 rotas) affect the performance, health and wellbeing of the workforce. This has been seen in other sectors, including the medical profession, where there have been cases of exhausted and stressed out doctors making detrimental mistakes.

In oil and gas, there are discussions to be had around working conditions that affect performance regarding human error and accidents, process events and longerterm mental and physical wellbeing. People need to be fit for duty but also the good of colleagues and the wider workplace. Detailed studies into these areas are still required.

Reporting up

Communication practices in the offshore oil and gas industry have improved post-Piper Alpha significantly. Some systems are designed to make it easier for workers to communicate with supervisors and managers, such as including mandatory safety representatives on every asset. They can act as a sounding board for issues on the work site and an independent channel to convey information and concerns. This is particularly vital if a worker is unsure or apprehensive about reporting up or fl agging a safety problem. It is not a perfect system, but operators and service companies are encouraging the sharing of information to catch and prevent errors.

Investment of workers’ time in the likes of the free IWCF course will help to endorse, reinforce and spell out why positive behaviors, such as sharing information, should be the norm, rather than making fellow workers feel uncomfortable. It is vital that workers at all levels have the confidence to speak up about safety. Increased knowledge can empower them to do so when they consider risk levels to be unacceptable.

Future tools

Skills outlined in the WOCRM training package are what the best drillers and members of well control have always done, but not everyone was using this knowledge consistently.

Course content specifically designed for drilling fl oors has been increasing with several studies underway in the U.S. and Denmark. Research, combined with the use of drilling simulators and behavioral studies that are directly related to drilling personnel will help build up a comprehensive picture of health, safety and well-being of the drilling community.

Have a story idea for Industry Pulse? This feature looks at big-picture trends that are likely to affect the upstream oil and gas industry. Submit story ideas to Group Managing Editor Jo Ann Davy at jdavy@hartenergy.com.