Once you get your safety culture “right,” is that it – mission accomplished? Some recent reporting about BP’s Alaska operations shows it’s a never-ending challenge.
The oil giant’s operations in Alaska just participated in a safety “reset,” after a series of serious incidents this year, according to reporting by Buzzfeed News.
At least 27 incidents happened at BP Alaska operations in 2017, including five that risked the lives of dozens of workers. Buzzfeed’s reporting comes from internal BP emails, recordings, other documents and interviews.
One of the serious incidents occurred on Sept. 10 when a leak led to a 1,200 kilogram gas release. “If there had been an ignition source, we might have lost colleagues,” BP Alaska President Janet Weiss wrote in an email obtained by Buzzfeed.
BP is no stranger to catastrophes in which workers are killed. An explosion at BP’s Texas City plant in 2005 killed 15 workers. The Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 killed 11 workers.
While investigations uncovered the technical failures that led to both of those explosions, a root cause they had in common was a safety culture problem, according to reports.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s final report on the BP Texas City blast found:
- organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of BP Corporation
- cost-cutting had affected safety programs and critical maintenance
- production pressure resulted in costly mistakes made by workers who were likely fatigued from putting in long hours, and
- lack of sufficient action on problems that were brought to the attention of BP’s board of directors.
The Presidential commission that investigated the Deepwater Horizon disaster said BP needed to change its safety culture. The commission’s report noted a survey of workers for contractor Transocean that showed 46% of crew members felt reprisals for reporting unsafe situations.
ProPublica reported that internal investigations at BP in 2001, 2004 and 2007 quoted employees as saying management pressured or harassed them not to report safety problems.
No one at BP can say they’ve never been warned that they had a safety culture problem.
So the situation in Alaska uncovered recently by Buzzfeed is certainly cause for concern.
But here’s the potential good news: Top BP management required action be taken to fix the situation.
On Sept. 27, Weiss announced a three-day work stoppage which was later extended to pull workers out of the field and address safety.
In an email, Weiss wrote, “We must have a reset.” The BP Alaska President also wrote, “We are not where we need to be in safety … A ‘controlling the work’ reset is needed across the entire workforce.”
Recordings obtained by BuzzFeed show company management understood the problem. “What we found is that within out business, we tend to communicate a lot, we tend to share a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily result in real learning and something changing in our organization,” said Jeff Kilfoyle, health and safety manage at BP’s Exploration Alaska. “Consequently, we see repeat events, right?”
“We’re just altogether too comfortable with handling and being around gas, and I think we need to get more uncomfortable,” said Anchala Klein, a VP at BP’s Global Wells Organization.
Will the work-stoppage and reset have the desired result? It certainly seems like it was the right thing to do, given the current record of incidents at BP Alaska. Weiss sent another note to staff on Oct. 9 in which she said she received positive feedback about the reset and that it’s making a difference.
Time will tell.
Lives are at stake, as are thousands of jobs. As one person quoted in the Buzzfeed article said, BP as a company would be put at risk of survival with one more catastrophic event after those in 2005 and 2010.