After the lethal blast at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers in 2005, the oil industry boosted safety at industrial operations on land but never made the same improvements offshore, said federal investigators meeting in Houston.
The offshore drilling sector’s focus on monitoring individual worker injuries — while ignoring bigger warning signs of “process safety” problems that could lead to emergencies — set the stage for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to the Chemical Safety Board.
“BP, Transocean, industry associations and the regulator did not effectively learn critical lessons of Texas City and other incidents,” the CSB said in documents. “A key lesson not implemented was that preventing major accidents requires a specific focus on process safety management over and above conventional personal safety.”
The independent federal agency reviewed the industry’s long-term response to the Texas City refinery explosion in a hearing Monday. The board will release preliminary findings of its investigation into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and launched the nation’s worst oil spill.
The CSB, which has probed more than 50 industrial accidents, does not issue citations. It makes safety recommendations to plants, labor groups and regulators.
The agency recommended major changes after investigating the explosion at BP’s Texas City plant, and it now says refiners have made “significant progress” creating systems for tracking and identifying near-misses and other incidents that could be harbingers of bigger accidents. Improvements onshore include systems for tracking spills, gas leaks, maintenance of safety equipment and times when devices push beyond safe operating limits.
But the industry has not adopted similar programs for using key performance indicators to drive safety improvements for offshore drilling. One case in point, the CSB is looking at Transocean’s decision to award executives millions of dollars in bonuses for what the company deemed an “exemplary statistical safety record” in 2010 despite the deaths aboard its Deepwater Horizon rig.
The bonuses, which ended up donated to victims’ families after a public outcry, stemmed from a Transocean safety tracking system that focused heavily on potential personal injuries.
“That was the most glaring proof that whatever lessons we were talking about that should be happening after Texas City were not being paid attention to,” CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said.
Safety expert Andrew Hopkins, a sociology professor at the Australian National University, said companies should monitor and report how long it takes offshore rig crews to respond to kicks, when oil, natural gas or other fluids enter wells.
“Blowout prevention relies on drillers recognizing kicks as soon as possible after they have occurred and taking corrective action, such as closing the well,” he said.
Roughly a month before it exploded, BP’s Macondo well had a kick that went unnoticed for 33 minutes. On the night it blew out in 2010, it took drillers about 40 minutes to recognize a kick had occurred — too late to stop explosive gas from spilling into the rig. Regulators in Australia and Norway require drillers to report well kicks. There is no similar mandate in the U.S.
Other potential indicators of safety problems offshore are well cementing failures and triggering of gas alarms.