Training, standards, culture cited as key to safety

Charlie Williams is the new face of offshore drilling safety. The chief scientist for well engineering and production technology for Shell worldwide, Williams just took over as the head of the industry’s new Center for Offshore Safety. He also is serving on a federal committee advising the Interior Department on ways to boost safety offshore. He spoke with the Chronicle about his plans for the center. Edited excerpts:

Q: So far, the Center for Offshore Safety has focused on helping companies establish Safety and Environmental Management Systems, which are now required by the federal government, and setting up a program for auditing those programs. Will that continue to be the center’s chief mission?

A: It’s always going to be an important part of what we do. We’re going to have an ongoing role to ensure the third-party auditors are properly trained and certified.
We want to take the results from the audits and use that to help industry understanding. It helps us know where we need to do more work.

Q: Will the audit results be shared with member organizations?

A: We’re going to generate a health-of-the-industry report relative to SEMS, and so we will put out the combined results of the audits. It won’t give the names of the individual companies, but it will be a good thing to look at to see if there’s a significant variation in company performance.

Q: What else do you have in mind for the center?

A: We want to create a combined database for the industry that doesn’t only have these audit results but also has near misses and incidents. We want to have a cohesive database that has all  of the things that occur in the offshore relative to the safety and environmental situation, for the same reason we want the audits — to help guide the work.
Since we have all this data, we have all the audit results, we want to be a vehicle to work with regulators and other stakeholders so there is a one-stop shop where people can talk about the industry and safety performance.
We’ve run one workshop on leadership during site visits. The way leaders behave, what they talk about, how they support SEMS in their conversations when they go to a site like a rig is extremely important in building a safety culture.
A second workshop was on leading and lagging metrics. One of the things that has been hard to develop in the industry are leading indicators that would tell you in advance that you might have something you needed to work on.”

Q: How do you see the industry doing more to foster a safety culture and how do you see the center being involved in that?

A: You need to have good standards, both technical standards and standards around how you do your work. You have to have good training; everybody has to be trained and capable in doing the job and following the standards. And then you have to have a work process — the way you manage your work every day to deliver safe results using your training and using your standards.
But what safety culture is to me fundamentally is you have to have a motivation, that all the people participating in this system are actually going to follow it and are dedicated and want to follow it.

Q: Was there a safety deficit two years ago and how far have we come since then?

A: I think there were some companies that were doing well in this regard, and other companies that needed improvement.  I think there was a diversity of performance there.
It’s something that everybody — even companies that are performing well — have to really focus on and think about. You can understand safety culture, but the difficulty is the things that are most straightforward to deal with are personnel accidents. You don’t want slips and falls, and you don’t want people mashing their hands. All of that is vitally important. But it’s not part of process safety. It’s not part of how you control your work processes. It’s easy to say we’re going to put no-slip stairs everywhere. And so it’s  easy to fall into the trap of getting really focused on that, which is important, but to lose your focus on getting good standards and good work processes that make sure we are following the standards and making decisions in a way that supports safety.
Since it’s about a management system, it’s in a way more difficult to do.

Q: There are plenty of environmentalists and offshore drilling skeptics — folks who might support exploration offshore in some instances — who say these changes are cosmetic. What is your response to naysayers?

A: We have quite a few things to do that we’ve just now started on, but we’ve actually accomplished quite a bit in a relatively short time period. We have audit guidance documents, audit tools and we’ve just finished the leadership site visit workshop and the leading metrics workshop.
But a lot of this work is a continuous journey of vigilance and improvement, and so I think that part is okay as long as you have a good base. And I think our base is good.

Q: You’ve been a witness to and a big part of the other changes that have gone on since the spill. Everyone points to the development of the two containment systems in the Gulf by the Marine Well Containment Co. and Helix. Is that the most significant change since the spill? What are some of the biggest changes?

A: The big changes have been around containment, improving standards, building these collaborative organizations like Helix and MWCC and the Center for Offshore Safety. There’s been a commitment and an enthusiasm for the industry to work together and to deliver enhanced safety to a degree that i don’t think has ever been seen before. We’ve always worked together but if you look at the results, it’s more significant than it’s ever been.

Q: You’ve had plenty of conversations with the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and Director James Watson. How are you feeling about the conversation with regulators and the new leaders there?

A: I think it’s been going extremely well. They’re highly engaged, highly interested and highly supportive.

Q: Do you worry about complacency developing as years go by since the spill? Obviously the center is meant to guard against that, but do you worry about that?

A: You have to be concerned about that so you keep your awareness up. It’s all about maintaining this high level of awareness, consistently and actually forever. It’s certainly something that is an important part of everybody’s commitment and it has to be an important part of everybody’s thinking going forward.