Important industry cultural shift to focus on underlying causes of incidents, not on individual blame
By Joshua Baethge, Contributor
Not many oil and gas professionals can say they helped design the International Space Station (ISS), but Chris Parker can. In the mid-’90s, while working toward a Master’s degree in experimental psychology and human factors at the University of Dayton, he interned at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
One project he worked on was analyzing where to place handrails on the ISS. Mr Parker, who joined BP’s Global Wells Organization in 2018 as Human Performance Lead Adviser, helped the team at NASA to conduct simulations that took into account what the astronauts would need from the design in order to move equipment through different locations. “It was like a playground. It was incredible,” he recalled.
The internship helped to solidify Mr Parker’s interest in human factors – something that, much earlier than the 1990s, NASA had recognized as an essential discipline and invested in as a top priority.
Simply put, “human performance” is another way to say “what people do,” Mr Parker explained. It recognizes that every job is impacted by human factors, which are the situations in the workplace that influence what people do. These encompass everything from organizational structure to the design of operator workstations to the causes of employees’ fatigue and stress levels. By studying how people do their jobs, what is required, and where their challenges lie, human performance experts can help to identify ways of improving safety and efficiency.
“We, as an industry, look at overall system performance, whether the system is a facility or a piece of kit,” he said. Equipment performance is important, and their reliability must be analyzed and optimized. “But there is also a human component to the operation of that piece of kit or facility. It is just as much an influence on overall system performance as equipment performance. We need to examine and target the underlying factors that influence reliability and availability of people, just as much as we do equipment.”
Mr Parker’s first job after graduate school was working at a US Navy research lab outside of Washington, DC. He performed research and testing on combat systems, analyzing everything from control designs to icon colors. This led to several projects and leading human factors specialists with government contractors. He worked primarily with the Navy and Coast Guard but also with the Department of Homeland Security, the Marines, the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as with the mining and rail industries.
In 2012, Mr Parker landed in the oil and gas industry when he joined a UK-based consultancy in Houston, providing human factors support to BP’s Safety and Operations Risk office for the Gulf of Mexico. “I was trying to branch out from government work, and I knew that oil and gas was a high-hazard industry where we could apply a lot of methods and lessons that had been learned in human performance,” he said.
BP had applied human factors into design projects and investigations in the past, but it was not a comprehensive program. Over the past few years, however, as the oil and gas industry gained a deeper understanding of human factors and its broad-ranging impact, many companies have started to look to this discipline in search of ways to further improve their safety performance. Companies like BP are now leading a cultural shift to focus more on the underlying causes and factors that influence behavior and lead to mistakes, rather than focus on the individual and mitigate through blame.
Mr Parker sees his role – both at BP and as part of an industry group that recently launched a resource, currently referred to as “WellsInMind” – is to help lead this cultural shift in the way organizations look at safety and performance.
This includes recognizing that systems and processes are often the culprits in incidents, and blaming individuals is likely not the right answer. “We need to focus on the underlying conditions and systems, such as inconsistent labeling or the way leadership responds to incidents, that allow certain behaviors to occur and change them so we can learn, prevent recurrence of incidents and improve overall system performance,” he said.
He spends significant time with BP’s contractors and service providers to communicate this change in philosophy. He’s also working to identify areas in well control training, investigations, critical task management, process safety, design and automation that can be consolidated under the umbrella of human performance. This is being built into BP’s processes and procedures so that human performance is not a separate conversation.
In the long term, Mr Parker hopes there will come a time when people aren’t talking about human performance – it will just be part of the way they work. When job requirements and work processes are developed, people will automatically account for factors that affect human performance and ensure that all systems set employees up for success.
“At the end of the day, it’s trying to optimize the gap between our expectations on how a job or task is to be done and how the system is designed to support them. It’s absolutely critical that you involve the end user or frontline operator in that process,” he said. “Otherwise, that gap between the two will be lingering.” DC