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Proactive Oilfield Safety

Taking a zero-tolerance stand to risk

Alaska is home to some of the most dangerous jobs in America. Commercial fishing, a fast-moving construction industry, and natural resource extraction are among the most dangerous jobs in the nation, according to the federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics’ census of fatal occupational injuries.

According to information from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, more than 450,000 people across the nation worked in oil and gas extraction and support services in 2011. Between 2003 and 2010, 823 of those workers were killed on the job; a rate that OSHA says is seven times greater than the rate for all US industries.

For that reason, safety is perhaps more important to oilfield companies than it has ever been. Across the board, oilfield companies and oilfield service companies are taking a zero-tolerance stand to risk in the workplace, implementing new and more effective safety strategies.

“It doesn’t matter the producer, every producer is demanding safe operations. And if you can’t provide them, you’re not going to be there long,” says Peak Oilfield Services President Mike O’Connor. “Our workforce kind of knows and understands that, it’s a requirement of the job.”

At ConocoPhillips, the state’s largest oil producer, a recently implemented safety program decreased workplace incidents by 60 percent in 2012, according to company officials, but the company isn’t resting on its laurels.

“Culture change is a journey,” writes spokeswoman Natalie Lowman by email. “We strive to be a learning organization and seek continuous improvement, and as such encourage the reporting of both actual incidents and near misses. We investigate the cause of every incident and implement corrective actions to address the root cause in order to prevent recurrence.”

BP, whose fields account for more than two-thirds of Alaska’s oil production, has safety as its core focus as well. The company uses a behavior-based safety process, or BBS, through which workers observe and identify safety-related behaviors that are critical to performance.

“BBS builds a strong safety culture through communication, networking, and developing empowerment opportunities for employee involvement at all levels of the organization,” says BP Alaska spokeswoman Dawn Patience.

The process has been in place longer than two decades and has lowered recordable injuries on the job throughout that time, but 2011 and 2012 were the best years during that period, Patience says.

 

Establishing a Culture of Safety Takes Everyone

Grey Mitchell, director of the state Division of Labor Standards and Safety, says both BP and ConocoPhillips participate in the state-run Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). They are among eight of the twelve companies statewide participating in the program, a number Mitchell is working to increase.

Although Occupational Safety and Health employees frequently get tagged as ticket-writing bureaucrats on the lookout for violations, programs like the VPP symbolize an effort to work with employers to improve safety standards and reduce workplace accidents. The general idea behind the program is that getting employees involved in developing and communicating safety measures leads to a safer workplace.

According to the state’s VPP website, companies that participate in the voluntary program see about 52 percent fewer workplace accidents than their competitors.

“This program is fairly rigorous to become approved [in] and to maintain the approval is also quite rigorous. It not only focuses on the actual illness and injury rate in comparison to industry standards, but also to unusual things like the degree of employee involvement in safety and health management,” Mitchell says.

Employees are the key, he says.

“You don’t get safety just because someone says ‘Hey, be safe.’ It comes because people are taking responsibility in the right environment,” he says. That’s what the VPP program aims to encourage—employees seeing the sense in safe behavior and being confident that they can point out unsafe conditions or actions without fear of being singled out as a troublemaker.

ConocoPhillips has earned the VPP Star award at five of its locations: Anchorage, Kuparuk, Alpine, Tyonek, and Beluga. Star status means the employer has demonstrated “exemplary achievement in the prevention and control of safety and health hazards,” Lowman says.

Participation in the program isn’t a one-time application process. Employers participating in the program are reevaluated every three to five years to remain in the program. Lowman says a key factor in renewal in the program is demonstrating continuous improvement. ConocoPhillips Alaska saw that this year—the company won a SPIRIT award, given within ConocoPhillips, for having its best-ever safety performance in 2012.

Lowman says that in 2011 ConocoPhillips Alaska managers realized focusing on individual safety accountability was key to boosting safety performance. They set a goal of creating what they term an Incident-Free Culture, or IFC.

“While culture change and good safety performance ultimately result from the many programs, processes, and procedures that guide operations every day, a key focus of the launch of our IFC journey was on defining and subsequently educating the workforce regarding behaviors which would help to cultivate the change in individual safety accountability,” Lowman says.

Shell Alaska doesn’t currently participate in the state’s VPP program but safety for the company is a top priority, Shell officials say. The company encourages a “stop” culture, in which any employee has the authority to stop a task that is not being conducted safely. Intense and frequent training for contractors and employees, along with a commitment to “Goal Zero” are indicative of Shell’s belief that the company can operate in the often difficult conditions it faces in Alaska and around the globe without fatalities or significant incidents.

“While we still have work to do, we are making good progress,” the company states on its website.

 

Extreme Safety Measures

Shell Alaska contracts with the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska to hold sixteen-hour cold-water survival and helicopter underwater escape training at the Challenger Center in Kenai.

The course is required for employees and anyone visiting an offshore drilling rig. Participants are expected to understand, among other skills, how to use safety and survival equipment on board the helicopters and be able to cope with physical, psychological, and physiological stresses that may be part of a cold-water crash event. Not everyone who takes the course passes.

Alaska oil producers operate a number of offshore platforms to which supplies and personnel must travel by helicopter. Shell is preparing for drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, where platforms can be dozens of miles from shore.

The company invested more than $1 million for the helicopter simulator and other equipment used in the cold-water survival class, but the training course is open to (and used by) employees of other oil companies working offshore as well.

 

Safety Is Good For the Bottom Line

Mitchell says one reason companies participate in safety programs is they have learned that being safe gives them a direct economic advantage over competitors who don’t pay as close attention to safety measures.

“These companies have recognized that the company that can shave 50 percent or 20 percent or whatever it is off their cost of workplace accidents, it puts them at a tremendous advantage over a company that might not be recognizing that,” Mitchell says.

Saving money goes beyond a company having to shell out money to pay workers’ compensation benefits or lawsuits over workplace injuries. There are hidden costs of injuries, Mitchell says, including loss of productivity, low employee morale, and higher turnover.

And the benefits of working on safety plans, particularly plans that empower employees to take charge of safety at the work site, are numerous, Mitchell says.

“It’s not only a financial awakening, but from there it becomes … a catalyst [for employers] to work more in partnership with their workforces. It becomes a team-focused event looking at all of the aspects of making a company do better,” he says.

Peak Oilfield Services was a VPP participant for several years and received awards from the state for safety practices at two of its sites several years in a row. The company, which is owned by oilfield producer Nabors Industries and primarily provides oilfield services to Nabors, does everything from moving enormous drilling rigs to building ice roads, hauling potable water to offshore drilling rigs, and repairing or replacing damaged sections of oilfield pipelines.

O’Connor says as a contractor working for other companies, it’s imperative that everyone involved in a project get together and outline responsibilities and safety measures before work begins.

“If we drop something [with a crane] and it ends up in the middle of their facility, then they have a problem and we have a problem,” O’Connor says. “There are a lot of drawings that need to be done before you lift something over a facility that might be worth $100 million.”

Safety takes planning, time, and commitment, not to mention money. But O’Connor says it pays off. Peak Oilfield Services is enjoying a reduction in severity of injuries due to increased safety measures. For him, that means more restful nights.

“It’s been a really, really nice change for me,” O’Connor says. “I don’t have to get up at night and hear somebody got hurt. And I can be confident that our safety crew is doing a good job.”

Rindi White is a freelance journalist living in Palmer.

This first appeared in the October 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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