Thursday, July 22, 2010

Transocean Safety Culture and Surveys

An article in today’s New York Times, “Workers on Doomed Rig Voiced Concern About Safety”  reports on the safety culture on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.  The article reveals that a safety culture survey had been performed of the staff on the rig in the weeks prior to the explosion.  The survey was commissioned by Transocean and performed by Lloyd’s Register Group, a maritime and risk-management organization that conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with at least 40 Transocean workers.

There are two noteworthy findings from the safety culture survey.  While the headline is that workers voiced safety concerns, the survey results indicate:
“Almost everyone felt they could raise safety concerns and these issues would be acted upon if this was within the immediate control of the rig,” said the report, which also found that more than 97 percent of workers felt encouraged to raise ideas for safety improvements and more than 90 percent felt encouraged to participate in safety-improvement initiatives....But investigators also said, ‘It must be stated at this point, however, that the workforce felt that this level of influence was restricted to issues that could be resolved directly on the rig, and that they had little influence at Divisional or Corporate levels.’ “
This highlights several of the shortcomings of safety culture surveys.  One, the vast majority of respondents to the survey indicated they were comfortable raising safety concerns - yet subsequent events and decisions led to a major safety breakdown.  So, is there a response level that is indicative of how the organization is actually doing business or do respondents tell the the survey takers “what they want to hear”?  And, is comfort in raising a safety concern the appropriate standard, when the larger corporate environment may not be responsive to such concerns or bury them with resource and schedule mandates?  Second, this survey focused on the workers on the rig.  Apparently there was a reasonably good culture in that location but it did not extend to the larger organization.  Consistent with that perception are some of the preliminary reports that corporate was pushing production over safety which may have influenced risk taking on the rig.  This is reminiscent of the space shuttle Challenger where political pressure seeped down into the decision making process, subtly changing the perception of risk at the operational levels of NASA.  How useful are surveys if they do not capture the dynamics higher in the organization or the the insidious ability of exogenous factors to change risk perceptions?
The other aspect of the Transocean surveys came not from the survey results but the rationalization by Transocean of their safety performance.  They “noted that the Deepwater Horizon had seven consecutive years without a single lost-time incident or major environmental event.”  This highlights two fallacies.  One, that the absence of a major accident demonstrates that safety performance is meeting its goals.  Two, that industrial accident rates correlate to safety culture and prudent safety management.  They don’t.  Also, recall our recent posts regarding nuclear compensation where we noted that the the most common metric for determining safety performance incentives in the nuclear industry is industrial accident rate. 

The NY Times article may be found at

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