News blog: Safety not top priority for oil & gas industry

During a recent event at Emerson Process Management's European HQ in Baar, Switzerland, company officials were asked to identify the number one issue facing the global oil & gas industry today.

In reply, European president Roel Van Doren listed issues including the management of aging assets, the operation of facilities in remote and hostile locations, and system migrations on North Sea platforms with limitations on both space and workforce availability.

However, Van Doren concluded that 'safety' was "by far the greatest challenge" for the oil & gas industry – a view echoed by other Emerson managers at the Baar meeting.

"Safety, for my end, is the number one priority that is affecting us all," said Erik Lapre, vice president service, Europe. "There is no oil & gas company you talk to that does not include the word 'safety' in the first sentence – and we all know why."

No surprise there really but today's emphasis on safety does raise a question: Might the industry now be 'putting the cart before the horse' in this vital era by making safety an end in itself?

When push comes to shove, what drives activity in the oil & gas sector is not actually 'safety', but the need to tap into new reserves of oil & gas – increasingly in remote, deep-sea and other hard-to-access locations.

Deepwater Horizon – a clue was in the name – is the clear reference point for what can go wrong from here.

This disaster happened essentially because BP's safety culture had not kept pace with its push to take exploration and recovery to new frontiers – even though the company had listed safety as its top priority.

At the time, BP's top managers already had US safety authorities breathing down their necks over the multi-fatality explosion at the company's Texas City refinery and serious leak from an oil pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

While these incidents were particular to one multinational, a similar - if less catastrophic - chain of events has often be identified after many other industrial accidents.

The lesson not being learned from these recurring incidents is that safety is a constantly moving target; hitting it requires much more than working to an agenda based on past mistakes.

So, while the oil and gas companies and guys at Emerson and many other vendors are right to identify safety as a top concern, in reality the number one issue for the industry is 'change' – constantly adapting all aspects of the organisation to support the operations being carried out.

Failure to realise this will eventually lead to dangerous disconnects between operational realities and the 'safety' everyone is trying to achieve.