Health & Science

Feds Probe “Culture of Safety” In Offshore Industry, Recommend Wider Focus

A federal agency is wrapping up its investigation into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout. Investigators say the offshore industry is focusing on the wrong things when it comes to preventing huge accidents.


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The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is an independent agency that investigates industrial accidents.

Previously, its primary focus was land-based incidents like the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery.

Don Holmstrom was the lead investigator for that accident, and is also the lead investigator for this one. He says the lessons learned in Texas City never made it to the Gulf of Mexico:

“We believe there was significant progress on-shore in refineries and chemical plants and the standards related to those that were developed by the American Petroleum Institute. However, similar progress has not been made off-shore.”

Holmstrom says drillers and producers focus too narrowly on safety issues such as worker equipment and preventing slips and falls.

He says although personal safety is important, there needs to be a big-picture emphasis on engineering and process safety, such as collecting data on near-accidents.

Holmstrom drew a parallel to the airline industry:

“Obviously the flying public is more interested in whether or not their plane is going to make it to the next destination and not crash than they are whether there’s back strains or personal injuries to the baggage handlers or other people who are getting you on the plane. It’s the same thing in oil refineries and drilling rigs: slips, trips and fall-type injuries are very important, but also what’s important and needs a specific, distinct focus is preventing these major accidents from occurring, things like fires, explosions, release of toxic gas.”

Experts at the hearing urged the federal government to consider tougher reporting requirements.

One of them was Lois Epstein,  an engineer and Arctic Program Director for the Wilderness Society.

She says the disclosure of early trouble signs could help prevent big accidents.

“About a month before the Macondo tragedy occurred, there was an uncontrolled release of gas at that well. It took a fairly long time to address, no one was hurt, but that’s an indication that that particular well was potentially much more complicated that people thought. It’s an example of a performance indicator that might be used in the future to predict what could happen.”

Reporting of those incidents, known as kicks, are not currently required.

But the Chemical Safety Board has no regulatory power; it can only issue recommendations.

Actual regulation is part of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

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