Offshore oil & gas operators want less regulation, but surprise inspections find serious safety problems

The timing of an article by Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter for the Washington bureau at The New York Times, on 8 March 2018, is synchronistic with my recent article describing the ‘Trump effect’ on safety and its attendant effects on the inspection industry.

There has been an increase in accidents in the offshore drilling industry, which has triggered surprise safety inspections from the United States Department of the Interior.

More than 50 inspectors conducted unannounced surprise inspections, dropping in by helicopter to inspect the giant cranes used in about 40 offshore platforms and drilling rigs.

The inspectors found serious problems, including some that were potentially life threatening.
“There are still some major incidents that are occurring and we need to figure out why,” said Mr Mathews, Head of Offshore Safety Management.

Nobody was killed or injured in these crane incidents, but agency records show that lifting-related accidents are the second largest cause of offshore fatalities, outnumbered only by fires and explosions. The cranes are used to move workers and supplies from the Gulf up to the decks. The United States Department of the Interior and its offshore safety bureau have been under the spotlight since the agency was ordered by President Trump to re-evaluate regulations enacted during the Obama administration in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, which killed 11 offshore workers and created the largest marine oil spill in drilling history. Many offshore oil & gas operators, along with other Gulf Coast businesses that serve them, complained that the regulatory response to the accident had been excessive.

The focus of the regulatory review has been two safety rules that govern offshore drilling and the production of oil and gas. But the deregulatory push has also meant that progress has slowed, if not stopped, on finalising other safety rules, including a 2015 proposal to enact new standards for offshore crane safety.

It was reported in The New York Times that several of the independent companies seeking the regulatory rollbacks had been cited for workplace safety violations in recent years at a rate much higher than the industry average.

But the problem is getting worse, according to the United States Department of the Interior records released to The Times. The rate of lift-related offshore accidents last year increased by more than 4%, reaching the second highest annual level in the past decade. On average, there was one incident for every 13.5 offshore platforms or drilling rigs, according to agency data.

The crane inspections are part of a broader effort to make safety inspections more focused on risks rather than routine scheduling, meaning inspectors concentrate on known hazards, such as gas leaks, or on companies that have a history of safety violations. This risk-based approach has been suggested to the United States Department of the Interior for several years by the US Government Accountability Office.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Scott Angelle, who now leads the offshore safety agency, recently announced that a risk-based programme was formally in place, but questions remain about the agency’s commitment to safety.

Non-destructive testing (NDT) is frequently conducted using technicians suspended from cranes for access to the inspection location. Such inspections are not for the faint-hearted, as I know from personal experience.

Crane-related safety violations often occur as a result of a ‘hurry up and get it done’ approach to inspection activities, as well as unloading equipment and other crane-related activities. As I expressed in my previous article, accidents and injuries actually create regulations and requirements that specify additional NDT.

There are significant rules and requirements for personnel safety training that include dramatic and often gory examples of safety failures. Such safety training is conducted on an annual basis but contractors often undergo the same repeated training and encounter the same accident examples year after year, becoming numbed to their effect.

It is critical that agencies devoted to personnel safety do not relax safety requirements due to pressure from the oil & gas operators.

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