Fallout from BP oil-rig disaster: Feds indict two supervisors

by on December 20, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

You’ve no doubt heard that two supervisors were indicted for involuntary manslaughter for allegedly negligently killing 11 men on the Deepwater BP oil rig in 2010.

It’s a worst-case scenario for anyone in charge of safety – fatalities, injuries, environment damage, heavy fines (BP has agreed to pay billions), national attention, and now criminal charges against managers.

Let’s look at what the federal government said the veteran oil-rig supervisors did wrong to deserve facing up to 10 years in prison – keeping in mind an indictment is only one side of the story. And we’ll look at how less extreme examples of the same tendencies can apply to any organization.

Facts of the case
The government says the supervisors were conducting a complex and risky operation to cap an underwater well. This simplifies the scenario, but basically, it’s like this: Underwater oil and gas is under tremendous pressure.

To cap a well, rig operators have to make sure that pressurized gas and oil won’t shoot up the pipe leading to the rig.

As rig workers remove heavier materials in the well (such as drilling mud) and replace them with lighter ones (seawater), they check that the underground pressure isn’t pushing gas and oil into the well.

What went wrong
According to the indictment, the government alleges the supervisors made the following five mistakes during this pressure test:

  • They failed to phone engineers onshore when several warning signs appeared indicating gas and oil pressure build-up in the line.
  • They failed to account for abnormal readings of gas levels during testing.
  • When a worker on the rig insisted the readings were something called the “bladder effect,” the supervisors accepted the explanation and kept going. The feds insist that the bladder effect is a nonsensical and unscientific explanation, and supervisors should have called engineers on shore
  • The supervisors stopped investigating the abnormal readings.
  • Ultimately, the supervisors determined the test a success.

Then tragedy struck; the pressurized gas shot up the well riser and ignited on the rig.

Is there a lesson here for any safety professional? If you tone down the severity of events and look just at the basics of the charges, you’ll see three
safety management warnings anyone can learn from:

1. Didn’t ask for help
Supervisors know they’re supposed to find a way to get the job done. They have a can-do attitude and may be reluctant to reach out. If things go wrong, they may naturally feel they should try to straighten it out first.

Suggestions: In high-hazard work, make contacts mandatory. You don’t want to quell initiative, but when you are dealing with unknowns, you want a call to make sure. A second option, in this case, is to ask a third-party to report back – there’s no reason that onshore engineers should have been out of communication for those readings.

2. Listened to info that confirms
A lot of people talk a lot of nonsense, and many do so with supreme confidence: “Frequently wrong, never in doubt.” The problem is we may be blinded, in the heat of a moment, to the version that tells us what we want to be true. “Oh, that’s the bladder effect; normal to have readings like that” is less
scary to think than, “We have to shut this down because the rig is about to blow up.”

Less extreme versions: “That’s a good anchor point” and “That buzzing is normal on this equipment; it’s not a sign of an electrical short.”

Suggestion: Supervisory training on handling “pushback.” Most of us know the right thing to do. It’s doing the right thing despite pushback and confidently explained nonsense that’s difficult. Role plays on handling excuses and a “no problem” attitude may help remind supervisors when they’re seeing pushback in the field – and why they should hold their ground and investigate.

3. Stopped looking
It’s natural tendency, the one safety directors fight to train out of people, to “press the button and see what happens” while crossing fingers.

Suggestions: Science requires that you try to prove yourself wrong: That’s the best advice in high-hazard work. Assume wires are live; anchor points won’t hold, ropes are frayed – test and confirm.

Role play when to stop investigating. That may flush out that tendency to “let it rip” and allow you to discuss it. The more practice supervisors get in front of you knowing when a test is successful, the easier it will be in the field for them.

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