IADC, Regulation, and LegislationJuly/August

Guest Editorial: Safety culture: Change and fundamentals

By Steve Gangelhoff

Steve Gangelhoff
Steve Gangelhoff

The unfolding drama in the Gulf of Mexico has been breathtaking. The sight of a tremendous vessel buckling and sinking, taking human life with it, is an indelible image. For those who are close to this tragedy, it is certainly viewed as their day of infamy. The succeeding relentless bad news surrounding the pollution and threat to marine life is overwhelming.

Everyone has in their lifetime one defining moment, perhaps more than one, and so does every major industry. Certainly one of those was Piper Alpha. For many, the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon is another. For some of us who have spent decades-long careers working around drilling rigs, putting our life-efforts into supporting and leading offshore drilling worldwide, this event is shattering.

There are many questions to be answered, and undoubtedly the root cause process will get there in time. But with an event of this magnitude, what happens to one happens to all.


The events of the last few years – the rig construction boom, oil price ascent, world financial crisis, drilling rig layoffs – make us uneasy. There have been serious oil price spikes before, but the spike of 2008 was exceptional. Taken altogether, we are processing tremendous change in our industry in a compressed timeline that seems unparalleled.

If you were around our business in the late ’70s and early ’80s, you witnessed a period of tremendous growth in the number of incoming personnel. It was a period of minimal experience and high accident rates, with companies scrambling to develop worker training programs, intelligent hiring practices, job site practices and more. The contract drilling industry’s average number of fatalities over the eight-year period from 1978 to 1985 was 55 per year.

Compared with the eight-year period from 2002 to 2009, with an average number of 26 fatalities per year, it seems like we are doing a better job at accident prevention. Certainly the long-range decline in LTI rates over the last four decades indicates that we are. But the indications that a rise in fatalities is associated with a period of great change makes me uneasy.

I believe we are on the threshold of a years-long period that will throw HSE challenges at us that are as daunting as we’ve ever faced in our industry’s history, and perhaps more so.

I read a great article in the January/February 2010 issue of Drilling Contractor by James Thatcher of EnCana Oil & Gas, “Industry should embark on new safety evolution to encourage common values in the workplace.” The article asserts that safety discipline in the US has passed through three evolutions since the early 1940s. The first evolution centered on equipment, education and enforcement. The second evolution began in the ’60s and addressed ergonomics, empowerment and evaluation, which enhanced the functionality of equipment, made training more formal, and concentrated on industry failure rates like recordable incidents and fatalities.

The third evolution was introduced in the mid-’80s and is still largely in practice today. It resulted from the understanding that causal factors were not equipment-, condition- or system-oriented but were the result of behaviors – shortcuts, bad habits developed over time and poor communications.


The fourth evolution that the article proposed focuses on something that we are already doing but that we need to organize, introduce, communicate and manage as an integral part of our safety model. It is culture-based safety, based on the simple premise that we do what we do in life based on our core value system – values like religion, family, honor, duty and country and self-respect.

The author goes on to prescribe a four-step process to implement the fourth evolution through a process that is largely about behavior. It’s about behavior that comes from every individual achieving the belief that “I own safety,” “I can do safety like I do my other core values” and “I will never compromise that value no matter what.”

To me, this fourth evolution is speaking to issues that are more fundamental than training, analysis, design and audit.

In 1982, as a young man fresh from working rotational schedules on rigs for several years, I gave a speech to the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association. In that “speech,” I noted, “At our company, we have no safety manager – every rig manager, every operations manager holds the title, the responsibility, the consequences.” That ownership generated all sorts of unique ideas that mostly went to the core issue – people.

No question that much of the progress made over the decades in accident prevention comes from our pursuit of technical solutions to equipment and design shortcomings. Some contractors figured out long ago that one key to unlocking worker safety was simply to focus on elevating the quality of life offshore: cleanliness, housekeeping, noise abatement, professionally designed quarters and food menus, particulate control, etc.

It’s no surprise that the safest rig environments I’ve worked in tended to be in countries where the work force consisted of people from the same community or village, people who are friends and often relatives – where the concept of mentoring is not just about teaching, it’s about watching over the lives of loved ones. It’s not about manuals, signage, power points and video clips.

I remember clearly a day 33 years ago when I was in my first few weeks as a derrickman and was offshore northern Brazil. I was working the middle board while running 9 5/8-in. casing. Trying desperately to center the pipe, I cupped my hands over the lip of the box, with my fingers inside the pipe, when suddenly I heard someone screaming over the intercom to the driller, “Shut it down.”

The entire rig came to a standstill while the toolpusher exited the quarters and rushed to the rig floor, called me down and put his arm around my shoulder to tell me how I was risking losing all my fingers and how to do the job properly. I remember everything about that day as if it were yesterday. I don’t know if that toolpusher thought that, if he didn’t watch over me, I wouldn’t survive working on a rig, but for the next year he stood in my back pocket almost literally until safety became my core value.

Undoubtedly, some of you are thinking that there is a technical explanation for all tragic events. Perhaps there is a technical explanation and a technical solution for what happened in the Gulf. My experience is there is neither a unilateral cause nor a single solution, and human factors are always a critical component of both.

If you’ve ever lost a loved one to a tragedy at sea, as I have, you’ll feel deeply connected to the current experience of the families of the 11 men lost in April. If you have loved working in this great and vibrant offshore business as I have for decades, you will feel a desperate need to make this right. Our industry will stand back up, examine itself intensely, and respond thoughtfully and vigorously, and organizations like IADC will play a critical role in finding the right way forward.

Steve Gangelhoff, senior vice president – marketing for Northern Offshore, is vice president of IADC’s offshore division.

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