From being surrounded by pumpjacks and rigs hammering away at the East Texas Oil and Gas Fields to the recovery efforts for one of the worst disasters to change the supply side of natural gas delivery, The New London School Explosion, these experiences paved the way for a unique evolution of safety within the oil and gas industry. With “fits and starts” in the beginning to the revamped safety regulatory agencies of the now, the evolution of a safety culture in oil and gas is a cautionary tale of “we can always do better.”

Oil: The First Days

Safety was a foreign concept as all levels of the industry suffered from a lack of understanding and knowledge concerning the product. From hazardous recovery techniques to improper storage and handling, deaths and injuries were an accepted commodity that were rarely recorded. In some producing areas, experience was judged by the number of fingers still attached. However, the first seeds for safety were planted, albeit, for property and not for workers.

Oil’s Golden Age: 1900s-1960’s

The primary safety goal of oil and gas companies at this point was focused on protecting equipment. While new technologies improved recovery, rotary rigs were introduced and new refining and storage techniques were being implemented, workers continued to bear the brunt of a lack of worker 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 peak 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 production stalling and onshore production and demand accelerating, as well as various geo-political turmoils, the expense of producing oil offshore made economical sense. This, however, also brought increased safety challenges for both workers and equipment. 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 and resulted in more regulatory power passed to the new agency created to enforce workplace safety, known as OSHA, which came into being in 1917.

Great Advances: 2000’s

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 Deep Horizon disaster clearly demonstrated that “we can do better” in terms of safety 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. MMS was renamed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), but 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 (ONNR), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

BSEE 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.  

Blended Learning: Today

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 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.

The high concentration of green workers and the obvious demographic challenges 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 employee to professional.

Many companies have turned to independent safety consultants and technicians to fill knowledge and experience games and to assist with developing expertise within their organizations. Not only can third-party safety consultants and technicians offer safety audits, trainings and quality assurance but they can also share best practices and ensure regulatory compliance, saving their teams time, money and resources. In addition, the use of blended learning programs that incorporate competency and knowledge-management tools has helped to enhance and expedite training, enabling workers to solve even the most challenging problems and offsetting the majority of the impact caused by the Great Crew Change.

Online resources that use shorter bursts of 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.

Studies have shown that these types of hands-on trainings have a stronger and longer-lasting impact on workers, resulting in fewer safety and health risks on the job.

“We Can Still Do Better”

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 a comprehensive safety program and interactive, hands-on training programs are essential to furthering growth and instilling a culture of safety. However, there are several factors that often still 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 on productivity over safety compliance

Additionally, there is also 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.

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, is 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 regulations.