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“New skills needed to avoid major disasters”

The SINTEF report makes specific recommendations aimed at reducing the risk of a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurring on the Norwegian continental shelf. Photo: Getty Images
Regulations and procedures in themselves are not enough to ensure safety during oil-drilling operations, conclude SINTEF researchers who have studied the accident investigation reports from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The project was carried out by a multidisciplinary group of researchers from SINTEF, MARINTEK, NTNU and the University of Bergen; Ranveig Kviseth Tinmannsvik from SINTEF Technology and Society was project manager.

SINTEF safety researcher Ranveig Kviseth Tinmannsvik says that it is more important than ever for everyone who is involved in drilling operations to develop the knowledge and skills that will enable them to deal with the unexpected and to improvise solutions when the situation demands.

New challenges
The safety researcher points out that the offshore industry has already passed the stage at which organisational conditions were stable and the tasks of individual workers changed little over time.

"Safety improvement is a matter of reducing the chances of accidents occurring and limiting the consequences of such accidents as do occur. Precisely because challenges so far have been predictable, the petroleum industry has made significant progress in safety-related efforts with the aid of traditional risk analyses followed up by the use of regulations and procedures,” says Tinmannsvik.

However, as the safety researcher points out, the challenges involved have changed.

Resilient organisations
“Today, a large number of parties need to coordinate their efforts. These organisations are constantly being restructured, and new work processes are being introduced. At the same time, technological development is progressing at a rapid rate, driven by deeper wells and more complex reservoirs. Drilling far out at sea and in difficult reservoirs is a process that involves endless problem-solving, with new unanticipated situations that need to be dealt with on the spot. All this makes new demands of safety expertise,” says Tinmannsvik, who continues:

“From now on, the challenge will be to develop resilient organisations in which everyone has a good understanding of risk. At the same time, people need to have sufficient insight to enable them to handle unexpected situations and improvise safely and effectively in critical situations. Or, to put it in other words; we need to develop the ability to deal with unexpected situations that are not captured by risk analyses. Although current risk analysis methods provide a good basis for decision-making in the design phase, we still lack methods that offer us good support for making safety-critical decisions during operations."

SINTEF’s assignment
Just over a year has passed since the oil and gas blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on the Macondo field off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven lives were lost in the disaster, which resulted in a spill of almost five million barrels of oil.

The disaster also led to the launch of several investigations and studies. The Petroleum Safety Authority Norway (PSA) set up a special group to follow up the disaster, and assigned SINTEF to draw up a report that PSA has used in its own work.

Recommendations for industry and the authorities
SINTEF’s mandate was to study and systematise information from investigations in the wake of Deepwater Horizon and other major offshore petroleum industry disasters, including the blowout on the Montara field offshore Australia in August 2009 and on Snorre A in November 2004 and the well-control event on Gullfaks C in May 2010.

The aim of the SINTEF study was to contribute to understanding and improvements in the petroleum sector, with a view to reducing the risk of a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurring on the Norwegian continental shelf. The report makes specific recommendations for the petroleum industry and the authorities.

“Information flow must be improved”
“Failures in the flow of information are among the causes of most major disasters. This was the case with Deepwater Horizon, Montara, Snorre A and Gullfaks C. Our report’s most important recommendations for the petroleum industry therefore include improving information flow and coordination among the many parties involved, and obtaining support from land-based experts in connection with safety-critical decisions and tasks in the execution phase,” says Tinmannsvik.

Early signs
Another recommendation for industry concerns raising the level of awareness and the ability of both organisations and individuals to identify early signs that a situation is in the process of getting out of control.

"Similar challenges in Norway"
“Could the Deepwater Horizon disaster have happened on the Norwegian shelf?”

“Every disaster is unique, including Deepwater Horizon, but many of its causes resemble those of previous disasters and events.  What we can be sure of is that on the Norwegian continental shelf we face similar risks and challenges, and that we therefore need to learn as much as possible from the Deepwater Horizon disaster if we are to avoid something similar happening on the Norwegian shelf,” says Ranveig Kviseth Tinmannsvik.

by Svein Tønseth

Here you can read a summit of the report: