Spill report cites poor safety management

WASHINGTON — Gaps in programs for managing safety at offshore wells BP and Transocean drilled contributed to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster,  federal investigators reported in Houston Tuesday.

The Chemical Safety Board, which detailed the preliminary findings of its probe into the spill at a hearing downtown, reports that those lapses included a failure to assess comprehensively the potential risks while drilling the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.

“BP and Transocean had multiple safety management system deficiencies that contributed to the Macondo incident,” the board reported.

The board also said federal regulators should step up monitoring of incidents offshore that could be early warning signs of potentially catastrophic accidents.

The safety board’s investigation is the last major probe of what went wrong when oil and explosive gas surged out of BP’s Macondo well on April 20, 2010, and ignited aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 workers, seriously injuring 17 others and unleashing an 87-day-long oil spill.

The independent federal agency, which has probed more than 50 industrial accidents, does not issue citations but makes safety recommendations to plants, labor groups and regulators.

Safety consultant Kenneth Arnold said at the hearing that the industry needs a “culture of safety,” which he said exists when workers and managers make safe choices  “not in their best interest, when no one is looking, when under stress.”

And the wife of an offshore worker told panelists that too little has changed after disasters at BP’s Texas City refinery and on the Deepwater Horizon.

“When will there be teeth to come in, alter what is happening in the industry?”

Its report says BP didn’t comprehensively assess the potential accidents and risks while drilling the Macondo well in a high-pressure reservoir 41 miles off the Louisiana coast and a mile under the Gulf surface.

“Industry benchmarking by BP focused on production performance without significant focus on major accident metrics,” according to the board’s report.

BP collected data that could presage a catastrophe — information called safety “indicators” — but those measurements and a separate hazard assessment typically focused on BP’s assets, not drilling rigs such as the Deepwater Horizon that it leased from others.

And when BP did performance reviews of leased rigs, the company too often focused on equipment failures, dropped objects, downtime and other indicators of operational fitness — not necessarily indicators of looming safety problems, the board reported at the second day of a two-day Houston hearing.

When BP audited Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon rig in 2007, three years before the disaster, most of its recommendations involved personal safety issues, such as scaffolding, equipment calibration and proper labeling of tanks, the Chemical Safety Board says.

Similarly, according to the report, Transocean’s own safety assessment of the Deepwater Horizon in 2004 emphasized personal safety issues, without any recommendations addressing major accident risks, such as gas escaping the wells it drilled.

Safety board investigators noted that BP since has developed “a more rigorous process safety indicators program” that can warn of potential trouble.

And after its own internal probe of the oil spill, the company recommended requiring hazard reviews of BP-owned and contracted rigs.

A BP spokesman said the company “has taken concrete steps to further enhance safety and risk management throughout its global operations.”

Transocean issued a statement saying it will review the report and  is “committed to continuous improvement in both personal and process safety performance.”

The safety board has identified a theme common to many industrial accidents — that executives and managers focused too much on trips, falls and other personal safety incidents, while overlooking bigger harbingers of problems.

The board is poised to urge federal regulators to step up their tracking of offshore drilling incidents that could indicate broad safety problems.

Before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, regulators required oil companies drilling in U.S. waters to report fatalities, personal injuries and infrequent incidents like losses of well control.

But the government only requested voluntary reports on other incidents such as the number of blowouts, fires and explosions that happen offshore.

Although the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is now requiring companies to turn over more incident data, the information still falls behind what some other countries are collecting, the safety board says in its report.