Deepwater Horizon: An Ongoing Lesson in Safety

This weekend, the feature film “Deepwater Horizon” hits movie theaters across the country. It tells the true story of the ill-fated semi-submersible offshore oil drilling rig that exploded after the well it was drilling erupted, killing 11 workers and injuring dozens more. Following the explosion, more than 200 million US gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days until the well was finally capped. Nearly seven years since, the disaster is still considered by many to be the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

While the film will surely be praised for its action and special effects, it will also likely reignite conversations around the importance of risk management processes and worker safety. In years since the disaster, eyewitness testimony and investigations have revealed that a system that allowed for systematic safety and process breakdown led to the well eruption and rig explosion. While hindsight is always 20/20, what the Deepwater Horizon disaster teaches us is that when safety and workflow processes are ignored, the results will almost always eventually be deadly.

Safety professionals in all industries can learn from the mistakes that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Below we review some of the unfortunate safety and process lapses that occurred, and what can be done to avoid them.

Key Warning Systems Bypassed

Worker testimony following the disaster revealed that the rig's general alarm had been set to bypass and didn’t automatically trigger any warning signals or zone alarms in the event of high gas levels or fire. Transocean, the rig’s operator, reportedly did this to prevent waking workers with false alarms. Yet, when the methane gas shot onto the rig on the day of the explosion, the bypassed alarm meant that the men on the drill floor had no audio or visual warning to help them escape. Furthermore, several witnesses testified that they never heard the general alarm sound that night; for many, the first sign of danger came with the blast wave.

Following the Deepwater Horizon incident, Transocean released a statement saying that repeated false alarms increase risk and decrease rig safety. And it turns out that bypassing alarms is a common practice; in the federal enforcement action records it reviewed, The Washington Post uncovered that in case after case rig operators routinely paid fines for allegedly bypassing safety systems that could impede regular operations.

While rest is important for workers in high occupational risk situations, there must still be protocols in place that alert individuals of present dangers. Furthermore, alarms are even more critical when they set safety processes into motion. Many Deepwater Horizon workers recalled a sense of confusion and apprehension to trigger other safety systems because they were unsure if a real emergency was actually occurring. We’re left wondering what would have happened if the initial general alarm had sounded and those workers had immediately shut down the systems that eventually led to the explosion.

Safety Training Gaps

What emerged following the Deepwater Horizon disaster were mixed messages around the rigs safety culture. While some workers recall an environment where safety training was done regularly, the actions of workers during the well eruption and explosion paint a different picture; many workers have said that they were ill-equipped to respond to the incidents and there was a sense of confusion and panic when it came to evacuating the rig.

The exact frequency of the safety training that occurred on Deepwater Horizon still remains a subject for debate, yet these actions during the incident highlight the need for training to not only take into account personal worker risk, but also provide site-specific information about what to do in emergencies. Evacuation drills are a critical and often forgotten training that should be completed when new employees start and as a regular, refresher exercise for all workers. While it’s nearly impossible to provide training to prepare for every single incident scenario, it’s critical that lessons take into account the most probable high-risk situations, regardless of how scary or disastrous they might be. Giving workers the resources they need to respond to even the most dangerous what-ifs is the best way to ensure an emergency situation isn’t made worse by chaos and confusion.

Today’s training management solutions not only help safety managers more efficiently plan necessary training courses and drills, but also help them track and report training completion across an organization. Furthermore, a good solution also alerts safety managers and employees when a training is needed or past-due, ensuring that important courses aren’t missed, and can be especially helpful in situations – like oil rigs – where a safety manager isn’t always present.

Poorly Implemented Management of Change Procedures

Inquiries made by the CSB and members of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California Berkeley determined there were inadequate management of change (MOC) procedures for identifying and mitigating risks associated with process changes, and this deficiency led to the initial well eruption.. While the plan to complete the drilling operation and seal the well had been changed five times during the week prior to the disaster, the group found no available documentation that formal hazard assessments or MOC procedures had been conducted.

Process safety management has little room for error. For those in highly process-oriented industries like oil and gas, MOC is not just a critical tool in helping to identify and track all of the required steps and approvals necessary for change work orders, but also a regulatory requirement for facilities that are subject to OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard. A good MOC product streamlines the change processes with comprehensive workflow support and by maintaining real-time information that helps users efficiently track and verify each stage of the change process. Furthermore, MOC products that use a single platform – like VelocityEHS – makes the information more easily accessible to all relevant roles in the company, from operations through engineering and maintenance, to the drilling crew manager.

Preventing the Next Disaster

The Deepwater Horizon disaster serves as an important reminder that safety and workflow processes cannot be ignored. With the new film coming out, now is a good time to review your processes and identify any safety shortcuts you might unknowingly be taking. Regardless of whether you work in oil and gas or in another industry with high occupational risk, worker safety should be a top priority and something regularly practiced. Don’t let your facility be the next disaster we watch unfold on the big screen.