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Staying Safe in Alaska’s Oilfields in Good Times and Bad

Whether expanding or cutting costs, there’s one area that oil companies are always investing in: safety


Keeping oilfield workers safe is more than just a full-time job for the many companies, contractors, and organizations operating in Alaska’s extreme conditions, it’s a way of life. So much so that before they are allowed to even pick up a drill or step on an oil rig, all workers on Alaska’s legendary North Slope are required to complete a mandatory Unescorted Course through the North Slope Training Cooperative (NSTC).

Founded in 1997 when British Petroleum and ARCO Field managers signed the NSTC Health, Safety, and Environmental Guidelines, the NSTC is a collaborative training organization designed to develop and maintain standardized health, safety, and environmental training programs for employees and contractors on the North Slope and other industrial worksites in Alaska.

“Keep in mind that every North Slope employee has to go through the North Slope Co-Op, which is an eight-hour session that deals with a lot of safety awareness. It’s that kind of commitment that, even if you’re a worker who’s never been in this environment, you are starting off with safety as the dominant conversation. It doesn’t matter if that’s in January or June, in down times or not,” says Mark Hylen, vice president of Beacon Operational Health and Safety Services, one of the state’s preeminent providers of workplace safety services.

Energy companies began flocking to Alaska after California-based Richfield Oil Company made its first commercial discovery on the Kenai Peninsula before Alaska even became the 49th state. That 1957 discovery drew interest from dozens of energy companies, ready and willing to brave the extreme terrain and inhospitable conditions for the promise of striking it rich with liquid gold.

It only took a few decades for that promise of oilfield riches to be fulfilled. Today, the petroleum industry supports one-third of all Alaska jobs, and since those heady days in the 1950s, the oil and gas industry has invested more than $55 billion in North Slope and Cook Inlet infrastructure to continue their exploration efforts. More than 17 billion barrels of oil have been produced on the North Slope since the discovery of the Prudhoe Bay oil field in 1958 by the company that would later become ExxonMobile.


Slumping Oil Prices and Their (Lack of) Effect on Safety

Despite today’s depressed economy, oil production still drives economic growth in Alaska, funding up to 90 percent of the state’s unrestricted General Fund revenues and accounting for more than $180 billion in total revenue since statehood, according to the Resource Development Council of Alaska.

Still, the past few years have been rough on the oil industry and the state’s economy. Falling oil prices required many industry companies to economize, resulting in the loss of 2,800 jobs in the oil and gas sector last year. As oil prices fell from highs of more than $100 per barrel in 2014 to under $40 per barrel in 2016, the state started seeing employment losses not just in the industries directly related to oil production but in other energy-dependent industries as well. A domino effect of job losses, budget cuts, and stalled oil and gas projects helped contribute to a statewide decline in consumer confidence and spending that eventually resulted in a recession. And though more job losses are expected for 2017—some estimates say 2.3 percent, or about 7,500 jobs—there is one area that companies continue to invest in without fail: safety.

Whether they’re in the middle of a major expansion project or looking for ways cut costs—such as ConocoPhillips’ May announcement it intends to give up its stake in the Point Thomson field on the North Slope to focus on other core initiatives—oil supplier investment in safety programs and equipment stays relatively consistent.

David Wulf, vice president of Health, Safety, and Environmental operations at ConocoPhillips Alaska, says the company’s Incident Free Culture (IFC) is a testament to the effectiveness of empowering employees to take control of their own and their co-workers’ safety whether the oil and gas industry is booming or in a slump.

“Even though the scope of what we’re doing out there may change, and with that comes either more people or less people, the underlying fundamentals of our culture do not change,” says Wulf. “I think historically we’ve grown to be a safer industry because of the business we’re in; we have to be. There are inherent dangers in oil and gas, so to be the best at what we’re doing, if we don’t operate safely, we don’t operate. It just goes with nature of the business.”

Hyland of Beacon agrees, saying that safety has to be a commitment throughout the organization, starting with the employees. He notes one of the least effective ways of implementing a safety program is to force safety procedures on employees without helping them understand why such programs are so vital. “It can’t just be, ‘I’m going to enforce this in a way that employees aren’t going to buy into it.’ It has to be bottom-up driven in order for it to be truly successful, and I think that’s what’s been achieved throughout the North Slope… and really the oil companies have led that because they’re the ones who empower these organizations to take the time to make sure they’re pausing to do the proper permitting, the job hazard analysis, and everything pre-job-related to make sure that all the workers involved are aware of the hazards and they have behavior-based safety programs in place.”


Taking Safety Home

Operating with the proper safety measures in place is a way of life for ConocoPhillips Alaska’s workers. A giant in Alaska oil production and one of the largest owners of state and federal exploration leases with operations in all of the state’s major oil fields, the company decreased its rate of injury by 32 percent between 2014 and 2015 and continues to see decreasing rates of injury each year.

“If you follow the injury rates, they’ve dropped significantly since 2012. We use the IFC program to teach people that each of us is a safety leader. We teach people how to engage with others and how to do it in a positive, proactive manner, so there’s no conflict and you can feel good about going to a coworker saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been observing your work and you’re doing a really good job. You’re wearing your safety goggles; you’re following all the procedures. I just wanted to recognize you for that,’” says Wulf.

“Everybody responds better to positive feedback, we offer more positive reinforcement than just coaching. If someone’s doing everything spot on and that person is recognized for it, during the course of the week you will see other people telling that person the same thing, and pretty soon he’s going to feel empowered and want to continue to operate in the same, safe way,” Wulf explains.

“We’re of the belief that it’s really about the fundamentals. We use the term ‘Stay the Course.’ Being really good at the fundamentals, being really good at performing daily tasks, that’s what gets you good safety. If you throw all these different programs at it, a program-of-the-month, then it just gets cloudy. IFC is a cornerstone that people follow inside work and when they get back home.”

Wulf and Tim Green, supply chain manager at ConocoPhillips Alaska, point out that the company’s employees are encouraged to work interdependently in an effort to ensure all workers “go home in the same condition they arrived at work.” Teams and individuals work collaboratively to bring best practices to the workplace and home again, ensuring safety is the primary focus of every activity, whether it’s in the middle of the busy season or the peak of an economic slow-down.

“It’s a line of accountability, but it’s also peer-to-peer. We have our behavioral-based safety systems, which is our peer-to-peer system where we look out for each other. So we’ll do formal observations to make sure everyone is working safely. I might do an observation on Dave one day and fill out a card and the next day he may do one on me [with permission from the worker being observed]. Some of the principles of the Incident Free Culture are independence and teamwork, that’s what we point to,” says Green. “Our ability to get people to do that [peer reporting] has a lot to do with management and supervision showing that safety is really our first priority. We have to get oil out of the ground and we have to do our projects within schedule and under budget, but our first priority is always safety,” he continues.

ConocoPhillips collaborated with other oil and gas companies in Alaska to develop the Alaska Safety Handbook, which lays out standardized safety procedures for Alaska oil and gas operations with the primary goal of creating a safer workplace by identifying and implementing best practices, giving all employees and contractors a single set of safety rules and requiring implementation of safety best practices, procedures, and policies throughout the industry.

According to Hylen, those safety procedures are becoming the industry standard. “It’s slope wide; it’s the safety culture. And it’s taken a long time to get here. It’s one thing to take care of yourself, but when you’re working in hazardous environments how do you make sure that you’re continually aware you’re working in hazardous conditions? Even in slow times it’s vital that nobody becomes complacent,” he says.

All agree that it can be difficult for one worker to approach another with advice about how to operate in a safe manner. Green and Wulf say they appreciate that peer-to-peer feedback may not always be welcome initially; however, they say regularly-held workshops in which workers act out such scenarios have really helped hammer home the idea that safety is a full-time job for everyone in the oilfield.

“I’ve had people tell me stories of being off work and seeing something unsafe happening and they debate with themselves about whether to intervene. One guy told me about how he saw a guy he didn’t know using his weed whacker with sandals on. He wanted to tell him he needed to be wearing proper footwear and at first he walked past, but he had to go back. And he had that conversation and the guy actually thanked him. It’s those types of stories, and we hear them all the time, that let us know what we’re doing is working,” says Wulf.

The ability for workers to take safety into their own hands and act autonomously to remedy an unsafe situation is part of a decades-long evolution of safety procedures that in part started when oil companies began using results-driven data to form their best practices. ConocoPhillips, like all energy companies, seeks to operate a zero-injury workplace. Their particular method of reaching that goal is to analyze situations, identify potential problem areas, and implement key activities, all the while giving employees full reign to step in when they see danger ahead.

“That’s kind of been the last step in this evolution, is that people have that ability to take action and not feel they’ll get punished for it,” Hylan says.


Stopping the Job

A vital aspect of most oil company’s safety programs is the ability for any worker, of any level, to stop a job for any reason, without the fear of retaliation or punishment, says Hylan.

“At ConocoPhillips the culture is such that it’s more than just permission to stop a job if you see something happening that you don’t think is right or safe, it’s become an expectation,” says ConocoPhillips Communication Specialist Amy Burnett.

The stop work authority (SWA) is becoming a welcome industry-wide standard. In order to empower workers to stop work if they suspect they or their coworkers are in a dangerous situation, ConocoPhillips and other oil companies including BP, Brooks Range Petroleum, Eni Petroleum Co., ExxonMobil Alaska, Pioneer Natural Resources Alaska, and Repsol, among others, educate workers about the SWA policy during their new-hire orientations.

On a day-to-day basis, the SWA policy is reinforced by company leaders to help workers learn when a situation could be potentially hazardous and how to intervene without creating defensiveness or fear among their coworkers. “Just the other day a guy who wasn’t even working on this particular job called for it to be stopped. He saw something that concerned him and he told them to shut it down. It turned out to be a false alarm, but we’d rather that happen than the opposite,” says Green.

“In the past, people were told to never stop production and just keep their heads down and keep working. They were not empowered to stop a job nor were they encouraged to observe and report on unsafe conditions. But over the years all that has changed, and we’ve come a long way toward giving workers the ability to keep themselves and each other safe,” says Hylan.

“We work with all the contractors and all the oil companies so it’s nice to see the overall level of commitment. There are different ways to approach it with staffing or training and programs, and I think that what you see are pretty mature safety programs throughout the North Slope, and, especially in down times, that priority hasn’t changed,” he says.


Complacency is the Enemy

From signage reminding workers of the tenets of IFC to peer-to-peer observations and the authority to stop a job at a moment’s notice, safety is deeply embedded in each worker’s daily life, both on and off the job. If there’s one factor that can derail those safety efforts in slow times, it’s complacency.

“Complacency is something you fight all the time. [People] like to be busy up there. When they’re not busy they’re worried about other things, and when they’re worried about other things their minds aren’t where they should be. And that’s when people get hurt,” says Wulf. “That’s why we really drive home the idea that safety is not a program, it’s ingrained in our way of thinking. It becomes second nature. IFC is not just a concept or a poster on a wall—it’s a way of life.”

Whether navigating through gale force winds on the icy tundra of the North Slope, taking the bus from the airport to the jobsite, or just heading in for some recreation time during a work slowdown, oilfield workers are taught to keep safety at the forefront of their thought processes at all times with the overall goal that even during the slowest of times the lessons they’ve been taught will continue to keep them safe.

“What this is really all about is making sure our workers get home to their families. On one end of the spectrum you have slowdowns and the risk of complacency and distraction; on the other end you have workers rushing to beat the weather or make deadlines, but we’re always here to remind them that safety comes first. That worry or that deadline means nothing if you’re not operating with safety in mind,” says Wulf.

As the oil industry continues to undergo changes and new discoveries are made, projects are planned and cancelled, prices rise and fall, and demand fluctuates, one thing remains constant in this highly volatile industry: safety.

This article first appeared in the June 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly

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