Choosing ‘restless Unease’

After The Gulf Oil Disaster

By FAYOLA BOSTIC

Pools of dispersed oil collect on a section of the public beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana.  —Photo: Getty Images
Pools of dispersed oil collect on a section of the public beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. —Photo: Getty Images

“The energy business is very dangerous.” Most people who work in the energy sector readily agree with this declaration from BPTT CEO and chairman Robert Riley. Despite the risks, however, most of these people go to work fully expecting to return home after their shift. It is probably safe to assume that the eleven workers who died last April in the Deepwater Horizon platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico shared this expectation. For those in the energy sector, Riley said that the disaster is a reminder of how easy it is for things to go wrong. Investigations into the root causes of the explosion are not complete, but according to Riley, “BP is going to change and it’s going to happen fast.”
Just what those changes will look like will have to be seen. HSSE Director of BPTT, Tyrone Kalpee said that the Deepwater Horizon event caused the company to question whether it was doing things right. BPTT leads BP Global in safety performance, but Kalpee said that there is a need to “keep in a state of restless unease.”
Both Kalpee and Riley admitted that this way of thinking was not always the norm at BPTT. Kalpee estimated that it took about ten years to change what he called the company’s safety leadership culture. “People think that safety is either more expense or more people,” Kalpee said, “but we can’t demand performance without ensuring that people leave safely.”
The balance between focus on performance and focus on safety is not one that BPTT always got right. One technician who has worked on BPTT platforms for over thirty years said, “Long time, you could get away with a lot of things. Oil had to come from the ground and they didn’t care how you got it out.”
People who tried to speak out against unsafe practices were often victimized. Riley, who noted that fear was the greatest enemy of transparency, spoke of a time when workers were dismissed for reporting safety issues. Kalpee added that today, leaders found themselves having to work against these anecdotes. “People feel leaders are afraid of bad news,” he said. Now, company leaders pay much more attention to how they react to incidence reports. According to Riley, workers are encouraged to report hazards and to even stop unsafe work. “I’m sure it’s not perfect,” he admitted, “but we are seven times safer today than ten years ago.”
BPTT, which outsources most of its maintenance work to Neal and Massy Woodgroup and other smaller companies, is also demanding more from their contractors when it comes to safety. Riley said that most injuries are due to contractors. “In the past we didn’t count contractor injuries [as part of our safety indicators]. Now we don’t make a distinction.”
By having to meet certain pre-qualification standards before winning contracts with BP, Riley said that he feels that safety standards were rising among contractors. He still felt, however, that more still needed to be done on a national scale to ensure that standards did not fall when these same companies worked with local firms.
The company’s safety record in the last ten years is an achievement that the CEO said that he is proud of. On the other hand, he added that he also feels shame from being a part of a company that was involved in an incident of the scale of the Gulf of Mexico spill. The spill is the largest marine oil spill in the history of the industry.
While oil has stopped flowing in the Gulf and BP struggles to restore its reputation, work continues on the platforms off the coast of Trinidad. For workers, the disaster is a reminder of the risks they face everyday. For their leaders, it is a reminder of the awesome responsibility that they have to ensure that those risks are minimized. One technician put it this way, “If you are a police and you hear that another officer get shoot, do you leave the police force? No, you just make sure you wear your bullet-proof vest.”

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