A safety mindset called the best defense

Creating a safety management mindset among oil workers is the best way to make deep-water drilling safer and protect against disasters like the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, an industry safety official said at a Houston forum Thursday.

Making sure that employees have the necessary skills and knowledge has become a key priority for offshore regulators and industry, said Charlie Williams, head of the industry’s new Center for Offshore Safety and a former well engineering and production chief at Shell.

“Skills and knowledge is more than just training,” Williams said.  “It means people being capable — that they take their skills and knowledge and execute the work the way they are trained to do, following the standards and good work practices.”

He was a panelist during the National Association of Black Journalists’ Media Institute on Energy at the Westin Houston Memorial City. The conference is aimed at educating journalists on energy issues.

Federal regulators increased scrutiny on offshore safety practices in the aftermath of the deadly 2010 Gulf accident, establishing new safety regulations that require offshore operators to develop complex safety plans. The philosophy behind safety regulation also has changed.

Regulators once focused on individual infractions of safety rules, but now they emphasize results instead — what auditors call a performance-based approach.

“You need to build safety systems that are best for your business and we will monitor how they perform” is the new regulatory mantra, Williams said.

The industry established the Center for Offshore Safety after the Gulf spill to develop rules and standards for safety, and to help operators comply with the new government regulations.

Industry and government efforts emphasize the importance of instilling a worker mentality that takes ownership of a commitment to safety.

“We have programs to change the culture in organizations, to convince people to say when they think it is not safe,” Williams said, adding that all employees should feel comfortable shutting down production without repercussions if they believe a practice is dangerous.

The test of that approach, Williams said, will come when workers make safety-oriented decisions if a project deviates from its expected course, as occurred in the hours leading to the well blowout, rig explosion and spill on in 2010.