Longer stays with rig workers could aid U.S. inspectors

Federal inspectors evaluating the safety of offshore drilling operations need longer visits on water-based rigs, including more time eating meals with workers, talking with the crew and sharing their sleeping quarters, according to a National Research Council report issued today.

The council also recommended that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement hire more inspectors to police the offshore drilling industry and establish whistleblower programs to encourage workers to anonymously report problems.

“Overnight stays would increase the time BSEE staff would be able to spend interacting with the operating crew,” the council advised. “More time on an installation would enable inspectors to better judge the degree to which a safety culture exists there.”

Other countries and at least one state routinely allow such extended visits, but BSEE ethics rules get in the way, the council said. Those policies generally bar the bureau’s inspectors from traveling on company helicopters, eating company-provided food or staying in operator-furnished quarters.

“All regulatory bodies consulted by the (NRC) agreed that time spent offshore in operator-furnished accommodations is essential to understanding the culture of safety on the facility,” the council said.

The study by the National Research Council — the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering — was sponsored by the Interior Department.

It focused on evaluating ways the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement can go beyond prescriptive based regulations and a checklist approach to inspections to more holistically monitor process safety at offshore drilling operations.

Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Norway, already use such a risk-based approach.

The U.S. ocean safety bureau has taken one step toward that regulatory model, by requiring offshore operators to implement so-called safety and environmental management systems (or SEMS programs) to identify risks and work to mitigate them.

But judging the effectiveness of those SEMS programs is tough, the council acknowledged.

While the government can track data on fatality rates, injuries and lost time accidents, “it is much harder, if not impossible, to identify similar statistics that correlate with … process safety,” the council concluded.

Routine inspector visits are still essential, the council said, but it noted there is a strong temptation to stick to a checklist-based approach to grading offshore drilling operations.

“BSEE should train inspectors to employ other options,” the council recommended. “BSEE inspectors should look beyond the written regulation to identify operators in marginal compliance and guide them into a more complete state of compliance.”

And according to the NRC, that really can’t be done in short visits.

“Making judgements about organizational safety culture and SEMS compliance will require training inspectors and scheduling of inspections to allow inspectors to spend more time offshore interacting with operating staff and observing day-to-day operations,” the council said. Thorough evaluations of SEMS programs requires “a cadre of trained auditors who will be able to spend sufficient time on location to conduct the appropriate audits.”

The council suggested BSEE consider changing its ethics policies to accommodate longer offshore site visits and company-provided flights to the operations. The agency also will probably need to hire more inspectors.

To offset the additional costs, the agency could raise inspection fees on the offshore drilling industry.

The council also recommended a new whistleblower program “to help monitor the culture of safety that actually exists at each installation and to help unconver any improprieties in its own operations.”

It’s important for workers to have avenues for anonymously reporting dangerous conditions and other factors “that may not be obvious to BSEE inspectors,” the council said.

But, the NRC noted, the program has to be carefully designed “to make sure that it does not become a tool for disgruntled employees seeking to punish perceived wrongs.”

The NRC’s recommendation dovetails with a whistleblower hotline established months after the Deepwater Horizon disaster during an overhaul of government offshore drilling oversight. Former offshore drilling chief Michael Bromwich created the hotline along with the formation of an investigative team to pursue allegations of misconduct.

Safety bureau spokesman Nicholas Pardi said the agency would review the study’s recommendations.

“We are committed to working collaboratively with partners in the scientific community, such as the National Academy of Engineers and universities, and with other international regulators to further enhance and inform our decision-making process on safety and systems operations that are critical for maintaining the integrity of safe offshore drilling and production,” Pardi said.

The NRC report credits major improvements in process safety offshore and notes that lost-time incidents have dropped by roughly 97.5 percent since 1968, even as hours worked increased overall. There has been a cultural shift on safety in the industry in the past few decades, said the NRC, adding:

“In the early 1970s, operations people actually quipped, ‘if you aren’t missing a finger, it means you haven’t worked very hard.’ No one says this today, and if someone were to say it, he or she would be viewed by many of his or her peers with disdain.”