Pursuing Digital Technologies to Improve Oil Safety

New technologies present both challenges and opportunities for keeping oil and gas workers safe. In two panel discussions at the latest Offshore Technology Conference, safety experts throughout the industry debated how to move forward.

Offshore oil explosion
Offshore oil explosion

Although oil and gas can be a highly competitive industry, oil majors and others are coming together more and more to figure out how to best tackle the challenges and opportunities that digital technologies provide. In an area that is particularly critical for all of them to get right, experts joined to discuss how new technologies and digitalization are transforming safety.

Divided into two panels presented by the Center for Offshore Safety, experts debated the issues in front of a large audience at the latest Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston this spring. Digitalization presents opportunities to improve offshore safety, making processes stickier and helping workers do the right thing, noted Jen Hartsock, vice president and chief information officer at Baker Hughes, who moderated both discussions. But it can also present challenging questions.

“As leaders in offshore, in oil and gas, if we don’t ask these questions, if we don’t engage in this topic, who’s going to?” she asked. “Together we are better. We can work through these challenges and opportunities.”

Ian Ferguson, general manager of safety and environment for deepwater at Shell, sees an industry and society whose actions are more and more premised on care. But he’s concerned about the pace of digital technologies within that context. “We’re not doing very well as an industry, for those of us in the safety and environment function, in really leveraging technology to exhibit that care,” he said.

The Gulf Research Program, part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, is grappling with how to incorporate new technologies into safety considerations as it moves forward with the next 25 years of its 30-year program. Established with the settlement funds paid as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster—the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history—the program is focused on enhancing offshore energy system safety, human health, and environmental resources in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer continental shelf regions.

“$500 million came from 11 lives lost. We all take that very seriously and are very passionate about doing the right thing with it,” said Kelly Oskvig, who leads the program’s leads the program’s Safer Offshore Energy Systems initiative. As the program develops its new strategic plan, the future of oil and gas operations is a key theme. “Data and new technologies will be at the forefront of the conversations.”

With the volatility in the oil and gas market over the past several years, it might be easy to assume that safety would more easily be ignored in favor of productivity. But Jim Andrews, vice president of health, safety and environment (HSE) for oilfield service company Schlumberger, insisted that safety and profitability are inextricably linked. “It’s remarkably simple: You almost never have an outstanding HSE performance and an appalling financial performance. Let your employees know that you care, and they do a great job for you,” he said. “Many locations with poor safety performance also have high absenteeism and low production—they all go hand in hand.”

A change in how industry defines what it’s doing and measuring is going to compel systems going forward, according to Rhonda Yoder, Chevron’s upstream general manager for HSE. “The industry is not going to let finances put us off track,” she said. “We’re changing how we define what we’re doing. For years, the measure of success was around failure rate. Now we’re focused on the presence of safeguards. We’re no longer just having consequence conversations.”

 

Embracing new technologies

Schlumberger has been very focused on the use of mobile technologies as a means to increase employee engagement, according to Andrews. “We are making a step change in performance because of mobile technologies,” he said. “I don’t think as an industry we have even scratched the surface on what is possible.”

But what do these technologies mean for safety? Yoder sees a “fantastic convergence” of time, capabilities, technologies available, cultural change and more, but is concerned about how that convergence might affect safety. “For 30 years, it’s always been the same issue: How can we put systems and tools and information together to help people work safely?” she said. “Now we’re changing the conversation. We’ve spent years building very strong management systems, but how do we make it easier for people to do the right thing and harder for people to do the wrong thing? The safeguards and controls we think are in place…really aren’t as strong as we think they are.”

Schlumberger, for one, is actively pursuing new technologies to improve safety. In one example, the company is using an off-the-shelf app from GreenRoad to improve the driving performance of its employees. In an industry as dangerous as oil and gas, it might be surprising to realize that motor vehicle crashed are responsible for more than 40 percent of the industry’s work-related deaths, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

With just a little bit of technology, Schlumberger has seen a significant transformation in driving performance. “We’ve seen a staggering change in performance of how employees are driving,” Andrews said. “It really does wake you up on what the technology can do.”

Just like the GreenRoad app reminds drivers of what they need to focus on, other apps could remind offshore platform workers what they need to be focused on during hot work, Yoder commented. “If I take driving and extrapolate it to preparing to do a hot work task on an offshore platform, we need to think in the same way,” she said. “That’s something we’re really coming to understand in the company. We’re so focused on perfect planning—all the things we need to train and tell to help workers prepare for a task. We need to step back. How are we enabling people during execution when they have all the environmental stuff going on—like driving distractions?”

The approach BP is taking in what are still early days is that not all tasks are created equal. “There are critical tasks and really critical tasks,” said Rich Osmond, BP’s vice president of HSE and process safety engineering. “If we get them wrong, we all have really bad days.”

The oil major has looked outside its industry—primarily to aviation and some nuclear—to better understand how to approach safety. “We all make mistakes. As rigorous as we make our systems, we’re never going to engineer out human mistakes,” Osmond said. “We need to be a little measured in that and not let perfection get in the way of good. How do we go after using some of these tools…to help us get the critical applications right?”

One problem BP has set out to solve is the impact of dropped objects. “In drilling, it’s probably the top personal safety risk,” Osmond said. “Solving the issue of dropped objects is very complicated. We need to just keep people out of the way when something is dropped.”

The approach that finally worked, he said, was for workers to wear a device that tracked their position relative to moving equipment. The company is able to track what should have happened vs. what did happen and use that to build more awareness and sometimes modify basic work designs.

The ultimate outcome BP is looking for is to interlock the equipment to the position of the people. “If someone has a foot past the imaginary yellow line, the equipment wouldn’t move and they’d have to take a step back,” Osmond explained.

 

Somebody’s watching (out for) you

Hartsock brought up the issue of privacy, wondering if there’s any cultural resistance to the company tracking workers’ driving behavior, say, or how they’re behaving on a rig. But the panelists contended that, ultimately, the workers’ own safety is too important to fight these kinds of technologies too much.

Without losing entrepreneurial spirit, companies want to be able to provide the appropriate structure and safeguards in order to drive more predictable outcomes, said Michael Lawson, vice president of HSE&T for offshore drilling contractor Ensco Rowan (which recently changed its name to Valaris). Lawson and his team are looking at how to use data analytics to drive human behavior at the work site. “It’s not about trying to railroad an individual or action,” he said. “It’s about giving information to the individual so they can make their next best decision.”

Schlumberger lets its employees know that they don’t have to use the driving tracker if they don’t want to. Although there will always be a couple people who will resist, most employees will comply, Andrews said. “If the technology is making the job easier and safer, ultimately common sense kicks in,” he added.

“We build trust and stay focused on what’s the purpose of what the technology is for,” Osmond said.

The technologies that are being put in place make it easier for employees to have success, Lawson pointed out. “We’re excited about altering and changing from what we used to mandate…to a more behavioral change at the worksite with a workforce that feels supported,” he said.

No matter how the technology changes and grows, Lawson added, it’s still all about the people involved. “Even with data analytics…we’re still in the people business,” he said. “For true implementation, you have to have a belief system, people who understand, awareness—and they have to believe in what they’re doing. We’re trying to influence people to perform for us but in way that we have a more predictable outcome. We want to adapt and alter their behavior before they even know it’s being altered or shifted.”

The oil and gas industry still has plenty to learn about how to make use of new technologies to keep their people and environments safe. “We are a traditional heartland industry that needs to develop a non-traditional muscle group. Most of us just don’t really get what it means to use digital technologies really, really well,” Ferguson said. But the intent is there. “We want to remove people from harm’s way and reduce risk by being much, much better at analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc.”

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