BP's safety plan takes a page from Exxon's playbook

Plenty of people remember the Exxon-Valdez accident in Alaska, but not so many will remember a pair of other embarrassments the oil giant faced soon after that March 1989 incident.

There was a Christmas Eve explosion at a Baton Rouge, La., refinery and, within a few weeks, a huge spill of heating oil near New York Harbor.

Exxon management looked at the incidents and said they “left you no mistake there was something fundamentally broken,” says Joseph Pratt, a history professor at the University of Houston who is writing an authorized history of the company.

The response from Exxon was a rather awkward document, the Operation Integrity Management System, or OIMS. It essentially involved finding the best practices for preventing accidents, applying them throughout the company and doing regular audits of performance internally.

“They told managers if they want promotions in this company you follow these procedures,” Pratt said.

Within five to 10 years the message had permeated the company culture, Pratt said, and made Exxon a top operator for safety and efficiency.

The safety reorganization BP has launched today sounds pretty similar.

The new BP plan will give muscle to the existing safety organization at BP and put workers from that group in every division. They will conduct audits of safety performance and change the way the company “incentivises business performance, including reward strategy, with the aim of encouraging excellence in safety and risk management,” according to a company press release.

Pratt says BP has no doubt has seen the system in action on the North Slope on several deep-water Gulf of Mexico projects that it shares with Exxon.

“The key will be how it is enforced, not what it says,” Pratt says. “Realistically, we’re looking at five or six years down the line to see if it can take hold and become a part of the normal culture of BP.”

The most recent incident could speed the process along, however.