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Study: Many offshore crews feel pressure to compromise safety due to business stresses

Oct 2, 2015 04:08 PM
Three vessels tow a drilling rig into position in the Gulf of Mexico. Internationally, a majority of offshore crews believe that commercial considerations are negatively impacting safety.

Brian Gauvin

Three vessels tow a drilling rig into position in the Gulf of Mexico. Internationally, a majority of offshore crews believe that commercial considerations are negatively impacting safety.

Most crewmembers on offshore support vessels believe that “commercial pressures” are having a negative impact on safety at sea, and many admit that they themselves would make compromises in an effort to satisfy bosses or customers.
 
That’s the conclusion of a global survey, released in June and commissioned by Helm Operations of Canada.
 
The report is titled “The Impact of Crew Engagement and Organizational Culture on Maritime Safety in the Workboats and OSV Sectors.” Its findings suggest that improvements are needed in safety cultures, casualty reporting, crew well-being and training.

“Worryingly, 50 percent found it difficult to say ‘no’ to a client or senior staff demanding actions that might compromise safety,” Helm Operations, a provider of management software, said in a news release.

“Our survey revealed that 78 percent of respondents believe commercial pressures could influence the safety of their working practices,” Rodger Banister, Helm’s marketing vice president, told Professional Mariner. What’s more, “as the industry works toward greater safety, we have anecdotal evidence — in the form of qualitative survey answers — pointing to geographical areas of concern,” he said.
 
The results were based on six months of research by Dr. Kate Pike and Emma Broadhurst of Southampton Solent University in the United Kingdom. The researchers examined Port State Control detention records from 27 maritime administrations in the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), covering the European coastal states and Canada, along with 19 Tokyo Memorandum of Understanding authorities in the Asia-Pacific. The United States isn’t a member of any of the Port State Control MOUs.

The study incorporated results from an online survey of 50 offshore companies, with 54 percent in Europe, 32 percent in North and South America, and the rest in Asia and Australia. A final report was scheduled for release before World Maritime Day on Sept. 26.

According to Banister, some respondents said safety practices in the U.S. and Europe are more satisfactory than elsewhere, especially when compared with West Africa and the Far East.
 
In the U.S., the safety culture in the Gulf of Mexico has improved since lessons were learned in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, industry members there say. Crewmembers today are encouraged to speak up about safety.

“At BP, every member of the work force has the authority, indeed the obligation, to stop unsafe work,” company spokesman Jason Ryan in Houston said in July. BP’s Bly Report, an internal look at the 2010 spill, offered 26 recommendations to make the firm’s drilling safer. Nearly all of those suggestions — addressing staff competence, contractor management, well control, well integrity testing, blowout preventers, cement testing, rig audits and emergency systems — were enacted by 2014.

BP’s Houston monitoring center, opened in 2011, supports its Gulf well crews with onshore specialists who relay safety concerns up the command chain. BP has a global agreement with Maersk Training, which is slated to open an instruction facility with simulators in Houston in 2016. BP workers in Houston and the U.K. train now on the company’s well-control and drilling simulators. In 2011, BP joined the Marine Well Containment Co., which includes 10 Gulf of Mexico oil-and-gas operators committed to halting offshore spills.

“In the offshore Gulf of Mexico, everyone’s given the authority to stop work, and while this is a great policy, it’s often misunderstood,” said David Barousse, general manager at Fleet Operators, a marine transportation company in Morgan City, La. “What it means is to stop an operation and re-evaluate the situation, not shut down the job and everyone go home for the day.”
 
Barousse said outdated attitudes are changing. “There’s always been pride in getting the job done,” he said. “There’s also the fear that a vessel could be fired from a project if a client’s told a task can’t be completed. Crews worry they’ll seem unmotivated if they say something’s unsafe.” Seamen grew up with these values.

“Fortunately in today’s Gulf, if a problem arises, we can usually discuss it with the client before it escalates,” Barousse said. “Today, with the government making Gulf leaseholders personally responsible, unsafe practices can get a company fired from a job. The old-school mentality is being purged. We tell our crews if an approach isn’t safe, step back and evaluate options. If they still feel the operation’s unsafe, management will back them 100 percent.”

Leading areas of workboat deficiencies are certification, documentation, fire safety and navigational safety, and 34 percent of respondents said that their companies need more  operational and technical training.

The Helm study’s global findings are troubling. “But in today’s Gulf of Mexico, if an operation were called off because of safety, I doubt there would be any serious repercussions from the client,” Barousse said.

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