The tour can make a difference

The tour can make a difference

As a fresh-faced cadet, FME’s international Health & Safety Expert Toby Hayward was told by his first instructor at South Shields Training College “You are the fire brigade – you can forget calling us!” He recalls it was a sobering thought! 

The reality in deep sea operations remains as such and although offshore operations are monitored by a fleet of support vessels, there is still nowhere to run when situations get out of control.

With the amount of oil platforms globally expected to rise from 389 units in 2010 to just short of 500 this year the frequency of fire related issues is likely to increase.

Unfortunately, the industry is not without its lessons learned in this regard. The details of Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon are mainstays of disaster management and not likely to be removed very soon. These tragedies, coupled with onshore events at Texas City and Buncefield, have remained in the industry, as well as the public, consciousness due to their dramatic visuals and catastrophic effect on the facilities, let alone the loss of life and environmental consequences.

As such, it has been the effort of the industry to focus on the prevention of such incidents ever happening again. However, the nature of the work that is undertaken means that the risk of fire and explosion are constant threats.

In the past this threat was often understood by those who worked on these facilities but was not so apparent to those in the boardroom. In recent years, much effort has been made to heighten this awareness as well as increase the level of top-down interaction with the workforces and operations where risk lies.

Much of this effort has culminated in “VIP Tours” of facilities and operations. An effort that I have been involved in, and one that I think that is essential.

Firstly, such an effort allows the Executive to bring trend analysis and company-wide issues to the fore with those at the sharp-end and secondly, to bring the Executive in direct contact with the conditions to which their employees are actually exposed to.

Further, it allows the workforce to raise issues directly with those that have the power to effect change within the organisation. Something that is unfortunately rare in large organisations. In fact I can say from my experience that 25% of issues raised are often not direct safety issues (issues with payroll, contracts or human resources for example) but can affect the concentration of personnel on their work and the overall safety focus that is required in high hazard operations.

As we are discussing this I am reminded of a quote from one of the leaders of the GCC, an area of the world which benefits greatly from the oil and gas industry.

“The Ruler should not have any barrier which separates him from his people”

The Late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE

Although I wholly support such efforts, care needs to be taken in the planning, focus to ensure that these efforts are productive, and add value to the organisation.

Many companies in differing industries understand that an area of good management requires Executives to spend this time with workers on the front line. Some companies even build these visits into performance related bonus systems or agreements that require such Executives to conduct a certain number of visits per year.

Occupational safety is often the focus of these tours, which is commendable, however the attraction to focus on “low hanging fruit” rather than the core issues has to be managed. In the case of the oil and gas industry this cannot be better personified than with the VIP Tour that occurred on the Deepwater Horizon.

About seven hours prior to the oil well blowout which occurred in 2010, a group of four VIPs helicoptered onto the drilling rig in question. They had come on a “Management Visibility Tour” and were actively touring the rig when disaster struck.

As mentioned above the main focus was to make management more visible to the workforce, by meeting and talking to workers on a variety of topics. It was primarily a social visit and did not have a specified agenda.

They had met prior to the tour and a very brief outline was discussed which included:

  • Visit the marine crew (a set of personnel that were often neglected on previous tours)
  • To celebrate a total of seven years without a lost time injury (included an intent to gather operating experience to pass to other rigs)
  • One VIP was aware of a slip hazard on another rig and wanted to ensure that the Deepwater Horizon had addressed this
  • Another VIP wished to focus on harnesses used for working at height
  • Understanding the employees knowledge of safety culture
  • To lend weight to the company campaign on the risks of hand injuries and risks posed by objects dropped from height

According to Hopkins (2011)1, it was clear that this was a lot more than a social visit, or a management visibility tour. These visitors were very much focused on safety. They came with messages about safety and each in his own way was engaged in an informal safety auditing process.

In my experience this can be pretty standard as an approach when time is limited and the focus has been on addressing specific issues within an organisation. If there is a companywide campaign on hand injuries then that will be the focus.

However, in this case, critical issues were at hand during the tour. The opportunities that the VIP’s had to intervene and question were there, but were missed, or dismissed. We cannot say whether such intervention would have reversed the course of events, but the opportunity was there. Now hindsight is a wonderful thing but I think there is a clear learning opportunity for these tours in this tragic story.

The core risks in any operation must remain the focus of these tours. If this means that VIP tours are enhanced by the addition of technical experts then that should be the case. They should continue to focus on the management visibility and employee engagement, and not turn into a mini-audit.  However, a questioning attitude must be embraced, and followed to satisfaction where necessary. This balance is key and should be the core of any programme.

One of the keys to any programme, and something that we should all remember, couldn’t be better personified than by a poem written by Don Merrell2.

I Chose to Look the Other Way

I could have save a life that day

But I chose to look the other way

It wasn’t that I didn’t care,

I had the time and I was there.

But I didn’t want to seem a fool,

Or argue over a safety rule.

I knew he’d done the job before,

If I called it wrong he might get sore,

The changes didn’t seem that bad,

So I shook my head and walked on by,

He knew the risks as well as I.

He took the chance I closed an eye,

And with that act, I let him die.

I could have saved a life that day,

But I chose to look the other way.

Now every time I see his wife,

I’ll know I should have saved his life.

That guilt is something I must bear,

But it isn’t something you need to share.

If you see a risk that others take,

That puts their health or life at stake.

The question asked, or thing you say,

Could help them live another day.

If you see a risk and walk away,

Then hope you never have to say,

I could have saved a life that day,

But I chose to look the other way.


1. Hopkins (2011): Working Paper 79; Management Walk-Arounds: Lessons from the Gulf of Mexico Oil Well Blowout

2. Merrell: I Chose to Look the Other Way by Don Merrell: safety-poems-by-don-merrell/ 

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