The Evolution of Safety in The Oil and Gas Industry

by | Dec 20, 2019 | Company News

The evolution of a safety culture in the oil and gas industry is a cautionary tale best defined by the phrase: “we can always do better.” 

Fortunately, revitalized regulatory agencies, professional industry training and advancements in technology have paved the way for the evolution of safety protocol within the oil and gas industry. At Pharma-Safe, we’re excited to be a part of this evolving conversation and look forward to growing in 2020.

Accidents are inevitable in any industrial setting, but almost always preventable. When they do occur, they serve as a reminder that safety should always be the number one priority for any organization. Accident prevention is achieved by compliance and proper safety training for all employees, but ultimately starts with management’s decision to place employee safety as a primary organizational focus.

To understand how the evolution of safety cultures occurred, you must look to the past.


The Early Days: Pre-1900

Safety was a foreign concept in the earliest days of the oil and gas industry, as all levels of the industry suffered from a lack of understanding concerning the product and its extraction. 

From hazardous recovery techniques to improper storage and handling, deaths and injuries were an accepted commodity that were rarely recorded. According to the American Oil and Gas Historical Society, most oil wells were dug or chiseled by hand. In some producing areas, experience was judged by the number of fingers still attached.

However, this time period is where the first seeds for safety were planted—but attention was primarily focused on protecting equipment, not employees. New equipment would be shielded with steel plates to reduce leaks, while workers were exposed to increasingly deadly operations and poor housing conditions.


Oil’s Golden Age: 1900s-1960’s

As mentioned above, the primary safety goal of oil and gas companies at this point was focused on protecting equipment and their investment. 

While new technologies improved recovery of oil, rotary rigs were introduced and new refining and storage techniques were being implemented while workers continued to bear the brunt of a lack of safety. 

In 1913 alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded more than 23,000 workplace deaths, the majority being oil and gas related. 

Still, the seeds of safety planted decades prior started to peek from beneath the soil with Hollywood bringing awareness to safety for oil workers with mainstream movies such as Thunder Bay.


The Oil Is Offshore: 1970-1990s

With onshore production stalling and demand accelerating, as well as various geopolitical turmoils taking place, the expense of producing oil offshore made economical sense. This also brought increased safety challenges for both workers and equipment.

Drilling vessels were contracted on day rates while production processes were codependent on one another, meaning there was increased pressure to work quickly to avoid potential delays. While there were regulatory mandates in place as early as the ‘60s to ensure worker safety, these orders didn’t necessitate testing standards, design criteria or technical requirements.

Several high-profile disasters such as Shell’s Baker Platform fire, the Alexander L. Kielland sinking, the sinking of the Glomar Java, the Ocean Ranger and, worst of all, the Piper Alpha Disaster, forced the industry to reevaluate the need for worker safety. This resulted in more regulatory power passed to the new agency created to enforce workplace safety, known as OSHA, which was created in 1971.


Great Advances: 2000s

While the events that led to reorganizing regulatory authorities concerning safety for the oil and gas industry began in the 1940s, the explosions at the Texas City BP refinery and the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster clearly demonstrated that the motto “we can do better” still applied to the oil and gas industry.

As a result, the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) responsible for the regulation of offshore energy was dissolved and renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). Shortly after, the Department of the Interior (DOI) called for additional restructuring, creating three independent entities to enforce worker safety, environmental responsibility and protection, and natural resource conservation: the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is responsible for overseeing safety, response and removal activities related to offshore oil and gas, as well as investigating, suspending and levying penalties related to violations concerning regulations of offshore exploration and production in an effort to reduce offshore risk and improve emergency response.


A Timeless Motto: “We Can Still Do Better”

We live in an exciting time for oil and gas, where companies are constantly pushing the limits of engineering and design to maximize production through deeper wells and taller offshore rigs.

While the need for a safety culture has been established, it is obvious that more can and still needs to be done to improve overall safety for the oil and gas industry. Companies now understand that in-depth reporting and auditing, a comprehensive safety plan and interactive hands-on training programs are essential to business growth while instilling a culture of safety. 

However, there are still several factors that often impede industry-wide safety progress including:

  • A fractured offshore industry with a lack of an established safety culture among smaller contractors
  • Inconsistent levels of commitment to safety by management staff
  • A lack of regulatory compliance oversight
  • A continued emphasis on productivity over safety compliance
  • Seasoned personnel are being replaced with young workers
  • A lack of trained safety professionals

Known to those in the industry as the Great Crew Change, the looming retirement of thousands of older, experienced workers has companies working tirelessly to fill the gap between those retiring and the younger, less experienced crews who will be taking their place. The shift has raised many concerns across the industry as inexperienced workers are at a higher risk of accidents in the field.

In an effort to ensure this generation is prepared to take over, industry businesses are increasing their efforts to provide proper training and access to safety information and resources to their new crew. 

These demographic and environmental challenges have required the industry to focus on new technologies and innovative training resources to help prepare these young workers for more responsibilities and promote a smooth transition from new employee to seasoned professional. 

In addition, there is a lack of qualified and experienced safety personnel as it has only been in the last five to 10 years that dedicated degree plans and safety training programs have been available to those in the industry.

Many companies have turned to independent safety consultants and technicians to fill knowledge and experience gaps and to assist with developing expertise within their organizations. Third-party safety consultants and technicians offer safety audits, training and quality assurance to help ensure regulatory compliance. This helps companies save time, money, resources and—most importantly—lives.


Looking Ahead to 2020 and Beyond

Using technology for safety auditing and safety training will continue to help reduce accidents and the harmful implications in 2020. Blended learning programs that utilize technology for safety, competency and knowledge-management training have helped to enhance and expedite overall employee training. 

Studies have shown that these types of trainings, a mix of virtual and hands-on experiences, have a stronger and longer-lasting impact on workers, resulting in fewer safety and health risks on the job. Online resources that use technology for training are becoming the industry norm, incorporating methods such as:

  • Video demonstrations of simple tasks such as choosing the correct field gear, safety procedures and noting hazardous situations can prove more impactful than a slideshow.
  • Virtual reality training allows workers to enter a simulation designed to take them through an average day on the job and requiring them to complete tasks as a means of testing their training knowledge and competency.
  • The use of tablets and laptops allow workers access to interactive training programs anytime and anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection.

Overall, the evolution of safety in the oil and gas industry has shown that expecting a shift in focus from production and development to safety as an overarching business goal has been slow and plodding at best. For companies involved in the industry, outsourcing safety to qualified contractors offers the most economical and productive way to deliver and refine a safety culture and program that benefits both the company and its workers, while also securing future growth.

Safety consultants such as Pharma-Safe can not only help your company develop the right programs and methodologies to protect your equipment and workers, but can also provide highly trained and certified safety technicians and consultants who work with your staff to ensure your projects meet all regulatory and compliance requirements. Contact us to learn more about how Pharma-Safe can help your team stay at the forefront of safety compliance and industry regulation. 

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September 2021

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