Safety management lessons from ghost of oil spills past

Safety management lessons from ghost of oil spills past
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Lousiana in 2010 was a world-scale event that heightened people’s consciousness of “this could happen here.”

For Canadian companies, smaller-scale oil spills don’t often make front-page news, but these incidents do happen. The Canadian Association of Geophysical Contractors reports that, between 2002 and 2011, significant incidents on its member pipelines in Canada averaged slightly more than three per year.
The same year as the BP incident, Enbridge leaked 20,000 barrels into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. On April 29, 2011, Plains Midstream Canada confirmed a release of crude along a remote section of its pipeline near Peace River, Alta. And on June 7, 2012, crude oil was released near Sundre, Alta., into the Red Deer River.

“(When) you look at the pipeline record overall, you may feel you have done quite well and that your practices are quite robust,” says Ziad Saad, vice-president of Safety and Sustainability at the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA). “Nevertheless, an event of the magnitude of what happened in the Gulf Coast causes us to pause and reflect on the repercussions, which have certainly reverberated in our industry.”

Lesson: Almost perfect isn’t enough
Mike Doyle, president of the Canadian Association of Geophysical Contractors, believes companies in general do a decent, even stellar, job at managing risk at the most dangerous levels.

“Companies are extremely (duly) diligent and go beyond the letter of the law,” he says. “But that goes sideways, to some extent, when we see catastrophic incidents where some of that risk management might not have been thorough enough.”

The oil and gas industry’s ongoing challenge, he says, are its booms, busts and seasonality. A constant influx of new, inexperienced workers who must be trained in a short period of time makes it difficult to instill best practices and a strong safety culture.

“I don’t know if you blame it on technology or human error at some point in time,” Doyle says. “But we tend to still run into these catastrophic events periodically despite the risk management.”

Over the past 10 years, 99.99 per cent of liquid products transported in Canada by CEPA members were transported safely. Yet, even that’s not enough.

“We have learned that even with an exceptional record, and even with the knowledge that the Canadian pipeline is one of the safest in the world, we need to do more,” Saad says.

That thinking led to CEPA’s Integrity First program, an initiative where industry participants come together to look at improvements to pipeline safety, as well as environmental and social performance. 

A key component of the program, Saad says, is prevention. Preventing disaster starts with new pipeline construction, using effective coatings to prevent corrosion and quality control in welding. Pipeline integrity also applies to existing pipelines throughout their lifecycles — including backfilling and making sure rocks won’t accidentally dent or crack a pipeline, as well as regular monitoring and maintenance.

Other key areas of the Integrity First program are emergency response, reclamation and education. The aim is for member companies to share best practices in these areas, strengthening safety for the industry as a whole.

Lesson: See the big picture
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has reported that BP Oil focused too much on the smaller details (such as individual worker safety) and less on the big, systemic hazards that led to the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Saad says until the BP oil spill took place, there was much confusion about what companies should do about personal safety, such as wearing personal protective equipment, versus major incident safety, process safety or system safety — in other words, the bigger picture, such as preventing the kinds of large-scale disasters that happen when someone pushes the wrong button or turns the wrong wheel. The new CEPA program is a way for safety-savvy companies to share their big-picture safety policies with others.

Lesson: Mind the contractors
A U.S. government panel concluded BP was not as strict on overall safety when it comes to drilling rigs involving other companies it hired, applying less process standards to rigs contracted out than to its own.

In April of this year, CEPA announced support for a pilot project designed to review health and safety processes within contractor management systems. Recognizing this process can be onerous for some companies to manage, the project aims to help identify areas within their businesses that could prevent, minimize or help recover from potential health and safety incidents.

Lesson: Look out for your response workers
After the BP disaster the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) raised concerns for the health of thousands of workers who helped with the containment and clean-up activities — citing the potential effects of their exposure to crude oil, dispersants, and mixtures of the two. 

Having learned the hard way from the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, in time for the BP spill response NIOSH was able to develop a first of its kind roster of cleanup and containment workers. The roster serves as a mechanism for locating and contacting these workers about possible work-related symptoms of illness or injury.

From lessons to real change
The U.S. National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released a report in January 2011 stating that without effective government oversight, the offshore oil and gas industry will not adequately reduce the risk of accidents, nor prepare effectively to respond in emergencies.

“Government oversight must be accompanied by the oil and gas industry’s internal reinvention: sweeping reforms that accomplish no less than a fundamental transformation of its safety culture,” the report says.

The notion of hording safety as a proprietary business asset has gone out of style in Canada’s oil and gas industry. 

Companies that experience a disaster often end up changing their internal safety mantra. Since the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, Doyle says, “Exxon Mobile is (now) one of the leading oil companies in terms of safety.”

As unfortunate as fires, oil spills and other incidents have been, the only silver lining is that lessons from these catastrophes filter through the service and supply grapevine, gradually raising the safety bar.

“We are all competitors at the end of the day,” Saad says. “But we have an understanding — which is more acute now — that if something bad happens it will affect the entire industry, not one company by itself.”
Michelle Morra-Carlisle is a freelance writer in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected]