Process Safety v Personal Safety


Why was there no focus on major hazard risk before the Macondo blowout?

The answer is to do with the distinction between process safety and personal safety. These are quite different types of safety that have to be managed quite differently. In the Gulf of Mexico, if you talked to people about safety, what they had in their mind was personal safety. They had no concept of process safety, no concept of major hazard risk. This is most dramatically illustrated in the story of the walk around which took place on the Deepwater Horizon. At the very time that the accident occurred, a group of four senior BP managers and Transocean managers – Transocean was the owner of the drilling rig – were doing a Management Visibility Tour. They were there for various reasons. They were there to make themselves visible, and to congratulate the rig on its remarkable injury-free performance.

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This rig had gone seven years without a lost-time injury. At the same time these managers were doing some informal auditing, but the kinds of hazards they were auditing were personal safety hazards such as slip, trip and fall hazards. One of the touring managers was aware of a trip hazard that existed on another rig and one of the questions in his mind was: does this hazard exist on the Deepwater Horizon? If so, has it been rectified? Or again, both companies were running a campaign at the time in relation to hand injuries. These managers were very focused on asking people about hand injuries and hand protection. But there was no focus on major hazard safety. The irony and tragedy of this is that while they were walking around the rig, the drillers were making a series of mistakes which led directly to the blowout. Had those executives been asking questions - what are you guys doing here? Tell us about what you’re doing. Tell us about how you are controlling your major hazard risks. Tell us about how you’re controlling your risk of blow out – they would have discovered that the rig crew was not controlling the risk of blowout. This would have forced the managers to put a stop to what was happening, and the accident probably would not have occurred. There was a real opportunity here to prevent the blowout occurring. But the touring managers did not take advantage of that opportunity because their mindset was that safety meant personal safety. So if we come back to our Macondo front line Macondo engineers, we have to say they were simply reflecting the beliefs and the behaviour that were being modelled for them by their senior managers.


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