It’s the new buzzword in operational safety, and it relies on a process of continuous improvement.
By Lars Adrians
On the same day that the Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010, several BP and Transocean executives were onboard to congratulate the crew on their excellent preventive safety work. They had gone four years without an accident. Statistically, Deepwater Horizon was a very safe workplace. Later that evening 11 people lost their lives, a vast number were injured, and the damage to the environment was incalculable.
One of the many lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon was the importance of establishing a safety awareness mindset at all levels of the corporate hierarchy. In order to achieve this mindset, an effective risk assessment and management system was needed.
Statistics vs. Accidents
At the turn of the millennium, working offshore was one of the more hazardous occupations in the maritime sector, and accidents were frequent. For statistics on accidents, the industry uses Lost-Time Injury (LTI) – that is, any work-related incident or illness that prevents a person from working the next day. The Lost-Time Incident Frequency Rate (LTIFR) is the number of accidents recorded for a group of workers per million hours worked.
In 2000, the LTIFR was 4.25. In 2008, the number was down to 0.74. Since then, it has been more or less a flat-line trend.
While LTIs were decreasing, major accidents like Deepwater Horizon still happened, and experts argued that the statistics were in fact marketing tools and that way too much focus was placed on preventing falls and minor incidents in order to reduce LTIs to a minimum while serious process safety was an issue for upper management alone. Operators are obliged to have a Major Accident Prevention Plan (MAPP), but the plan is part of risk management and often less visible and present to the crew compared to the health and safety policy.
There was a clear disconnect between statistics and personal safety on the one hand and major accidents and process safety on the other. Something was missing.
The Start of Self-Assessment
To address the gap, in 2011 the Oil Companies International Marine Forum established a program for offshore operators called Offshore Vessel Management and Self-Assessment. OVMSA was based on the very successful self-assessment guide for tanker operators established in 2004 called Tanker Management and Self-Assessment. In short, OVMSA challenged operators to assess their management systems and demonstrate a strong commitment to safety and environmental care.
The main task for operators is to audit their own operational safety procedures. The OVMSA concept is based on continuous improvement processes, sharing documents and following a “best practices guide” for a particular operation. Operational performance is measured by KPIs, Key Performance Indicators, divided into four stages. Stage 1 is a minimum requirement. Stage 4 is the highest and consequently the most difficult level to attain.
In theory, the system works very well since high-level performers win tenders. Instead of focusing on statistics alone, operators commit to constantly improving their levels of performance.
OVMSA has been a standard in the industry for four years now. During that time the attitude towards self-assessment has shifted from initial confusion to acceptance and finally to a commitment to self-evaluation and sharing.
OVMSA and Its Challenges
What, then, are the day-to-day challenges of working with a system designed to always question what you do, and how has the industry adapted?
According to Mathias Rosenblad, Safety Manager of Floatel AB in Sweden, an operator of semi-submersible offshore accommodation vessels called “flotels,” there have been many positive effects from OVMSA. Operators push subcontractors and suppliers to live up to higher standards than before, and that has elevated the whole industry to a higher level of performance.
“Probably the most positive effect of OVMSA is the transparency it has created in the offshore sector,” he explains. “Everybody reports incidents, near-incidents and near-misses, and since we have access to that information we constantly learn and improve our own processes. We have committed fully to OVMSA. We perform internal inspections on all our rigs, and our customers audit us on our management systems.”
There are challenges, however. “One is that oil majors do not agree on standards,” says Rosenblad. “Instead, they compete in their demands, so we can never expect oil majors to approve each other’s audits. The topics are the same, but forms and structure are different. It has been a lot more work for us since we started following OVMSA.”
Another challenge is that operators and subcontractors spend a lot of time and energy addressing the different demands from authorities. In order to operate a rig on a field they need to have their so-called “Safety Case” approved by local authorities or agencies. The Safety Case is a document describing management systems, risk-assessment, how risks have been identified, and what has been done to reduce risks to an acceptable level.
The problem is that even though operations are generally the same all over, there are vast regional differences in legislation. The Safety Cases for Norway, Brazil, the Gulf of Mexico and the U.K. are totally different. This leads to a tremendous amount of extra work.
Similarly, maritime training and certification can be quite a challenge. A certificate issued by a Norwegian school is not valid for work in Brazil, so the employee needs to take a new course in order to be approved for work in that area. Taking four separate courses containing the same information does not contribute to a higher level of understanding; instead it causes irritation and frustration.
Safety in Every Detail
For a company like Floatel, personal safety starts at the drawing table and never ends. ”Flotels" are designed specifically for their designated geographical area, weather conditions, customer demands and local legislation. For a platform operating in the North Sea, requirements are extremely high, and the design of living quarters and work areas must comply with exacting standards. Every conceivable risk must be reduced to a minimum. Light and noise conditions have to be beneficial for living quarters. Angles on staircases are optimized to reduce the risk of falling, and all areas are designed to be ergonomically correct.
When the platform is placed in operation, the work continues. The health of the crew is constantly monitored. Exposure to chemicals, noise, and static or repetitive tasks is kept to a minimum. The galley, for instance, is monitored not only to ensure that food preparation is in accordance with recommendations but also to reduce the risk of work-related injury or sickness. In order to measure exposure to cooking fumes, detectors are placed near stoves or griddles or even attached to the person working in that area.
When it comes to process safety and the prevention of serious accidents, Floatel has incorporated a system known as “Barrier Management.” The Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority (PSA) released this standard in 2013. Its purpose is “to establish and maintain barriers so that the risk faced at any given time can be handled by preventing an undesirable incident from occurring or by limiting the consequences should such an incident occur.”
Rosenblad says Barrier Management works well but has its challenges too: “For instance, the guidelines for Barrier Management from PSA briefly refer to a regulatory system stating the need for barriers. How to solve it is up to you. We still do risk assessments, but with Barrier Management we monitor our barriers towards the PSA’s performance standards: functionality, availability, reliability, survivability and interdependencies.”
The regional challenges are also there. “There are different guidelines for different countries,” he notes. “When we go from Norway to the U.K. there are difficulties. The terminology is totally different. In Norway the technical, operational or organizational measures or solutions we determine critical for ensuring barrier function are called Barrier Elements. In the U.K. they have been called the Safety Critical Elements but are now changing to Safety or Environmentally Critical Elements. It’s challenging for everybody working offshore to learn and understand all the concepts and acronyms.”
Challenging as it may be, there is no doubt that the various approaches to self-assessment work. “I do wish that oil companies, organizations and authorities would just sit down and come to an agreement on these matters,” Rosenblad laments. “That would make our work much more efficient and maybe even contribute to a higher degree of overall safety.” – MarEx
Lars Adrians writes from Gothenburg, Sweden.