Feds: Safety culture ‘poor, at best’ before fatal Black Elk platform blast

WASHINGTON — Poor decisions by Houston-based Black Elk Energy and its contractors led to a fatal explosion at one of its production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, a federal investigation concluded Monday.

Almost a year since the Nov. 16, 2012 blast that killed three workers and injured several others, the probe faulted Black Elk for failing “to establish an effective safety culture” and communicate risks and precautions to its contractors at the site. Contractors on board the platform did not follow “proper safety precautions” before welding, including using detectors to verify that pipes were cleared of flammable gas before conducting the “hot work.”

In their report on the accident, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Coast Guard also said that workers who were “worried about losing their jobs if they raised safety concerns” did not call a halt to work “despite apparent anomalies.”

“These failures reflect a disregard for the safety of workers on the platform,” said safety bureau director Brian Salerno in a statement. The problems “are the antithesis of the type of safety culture that should guide decision-making in all offshore oil and gas operations.”

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The safety bureau said it would take “appropriate enforcement actions,” which could include penalties against Black Elk Energy as well as several of the contractors that worked at the site, including Philippines-based DNR Offshore and Crewing Services, Scotland’s Wood Group PSN, Galliano, La.-based Grand Isle Shipyard and Lafayette, La.-based Compass.

Black Elk Energy and contractors did not immediately respond to a request that it comment on the report. But Wood Group said in a previous statement that safety is its highest priority, and Black Elk previously released a third-party investigation of the explosion that effectively pinned blame on the web of contractors that worked on the ill-fated facility:

  • Compass which was contracted by Black Elk to manage and oversee construction modifications and coordinate all of the companies working on the platform.
  • Wood Group, which was tasked by Black Elk with managing production equipment and serving as the “person in charge” at the time of the accident.
  • Grand Isle Shipyard, which was hired by Black Elk Energy to provide workers for construction projects at the West Delta 32 complex.
  • DNR Offshore Crewing Services, which was contracted by Grand Isle Shipyard to recruit workers from the Philippines.

Ultimately, as the leaseholder and operator of the platform, Black Elk Energy “was responsible for ensuring that all of its contractors worked together to operate in a safe and environmentally responsible manner,” according to the report. But “the panel found the safety culture aboard the West Delta 32 complex at the time of the incident to be poor at best.”

“Due to Black Elk’s failure to manage its contractors and the contractors’ collective failure to adhere to established policies, the panel found the lack of a safety culture aboard the West Delta 32 complex to be a contributing cause of the explosion (and) fire,” investigators said.

The immediate cause of the fire can be traced back to a pipe-welding operation. A little after 9 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2012, DNR workers started welding a flange on open piping that led to a wet oil tank. But that pipe had not been isolated and cleared of flammable vapors. Once workers started welding, sparks are believed to have ignited flammable vapors in the pipe, triggering the explosion in the wet oil tank and two connected dry tanks.

Internal Black Elk safety policies require supervisors to issue permits for any so-called hot work activities that involve burning, welding or other operations capable of starting fires.

Gas detector as decor

But gas detectors were not functioning properly at the time, according to the federal inquiry. Grand Isle Shipyard and DNR workers told investigators that “one detector’s battery did not last more than half a day and the second detector alarmed constantly.” But supervisors overlooked their concerns and may even have made light of them.

“According to the DNR workers, the GIS/DNR supervisor instructed the construction workers to hang the non-functioning gas detector up like a ‘decoration’ so everyone could at least see that they had one,” the federal report noted.

A Grand Isle Shipyard supervisor told investigators that the detectors were both in good working order, except for one that did not have a long-lasting battery, and that he would halt hot work if both detectors were not working. But the safety bureau and Coast Guard report said the statements were not credible.

Moreover, investigators said their review of data records from the GIS gas detectors showed they were not used either the day of the explosion or the prior day.

At Black Elk’s West Delta 32 complex, investigators said the hot work permit issued on the morning of the explosion was effectively a duplicate of the previous day’s authorization, without a fresh assessment of the areas it covered. It was completed by a Wood Group operator who told investigators he was new to the process and the permit was not reviewed or signed by the designated “person in charge.” And it covered multiple areas on the platform where hot work was being conducted, violating Black Elk’s established policy.

The panel investigation also documented other problems:

  • “The Compass consultant failed to effectively communicate all of the construction project changes and the potential hazards related to those projects with other contractors onboard.”
  • “The panel found evidence, immediately prior to welding, one of the GIS workers asked the others if they smelled gas. The panel found no evidence the other workers responded or that anyone took steps to suspend operations to investigate further. Some of the construction crew workers for GIS expressed concerns about the possibility of one of the gas detectors not functioning properly. There was no clear explanation of what was done to remedy this situation.”
  • “Interviews of GIS/DNR workers provided multiple examples of incidents where safety was lacking aboard the West Delta 32 complex prior to the incident. Specifically, several workers had expressed their concern over safety while using the platforms crane to lift deck grating. . . . The GIS/DNR supervisor stated he stopped the work; however the GIS/DNR workers claim they were told not to worry and to continue with their work.”

Panel recommendations

The safety bureau and Coast Guard investigation panel recommended that offshore operators conduct “a safety stand down” where they discuss the events surrounding the explosion and fire at the West Delta 32 platform, with a goal of improving their own communications and clearly articulating the chain of command for their activities.

The investigators also urged offshore operators to require all workers involved in hot work to participate together in all safety meetings, to make sure the scope of the projects is understood and all hazards are identified.

Salerno said he is asking the American Petroleum Institute to assist the safety bureau in issuing improved standards for hot work, to ensure there is consistency across the offshore industry. The American Petroleum Institute already has one recommended practice, last updated in 2002, which urges companies to evaluate hazards, test for flammable gas and take other precautions when conducting hot work.

API spokesman Brian Straessle said the group’s recommended practices for safe welding, cutting and hot work are updated on a regular basis.

“We will review the report and any recommendations as we continue to work closely with government agencies to ensure that regulations and industry standards reflect the best practices, technologies, safety standards and environmental protections possible,” Straessle said.

The Black Elk platform explosion was one in a series of incidents in shallow Gulf waters in the past three years.

Salerno said the Black Elk Energy explosion “highlights the fact that operators and contractors must be vigilant to safety hazards and risks during all types of operations,” he said.

“These failures occurred during construction operations, not while the facility was producing oil and/or gas,” Salerno said. “Our recent experience suggests that all offshore oil and gas operations … carry inherent risks and that all entities and personnel engaged in such operations need to work to identify and attempt to mitigate such risks.”