Pursuing Digital Technologies To Improve Oil Safety

Although oil and gas can be a highly competitive industry, oil majors and others are coming together more and more to figure out how best to tackle the challenges and opportunities that digital technologies provide. In an area that is particularly critical for all of them to get right, experts joined to discuss how new technologies and digitalization are transforming safety.

Divided into two panels presented by the Center for Offshore Safety, experts debated the issues in front of a large audience at the latest Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston this spring. Digitalization presents opportunities to improve offshore safety, making processes stickier and helping workers do the right thing, noted Jen Hartsock, vice president and chief information officer at Baker Hughes, who moderated both discussions. But it can also present challenging questions.

“As leaders in offshore, in oil and gas, if we don’t ask these questions, if we don’t engage in this topic, who’s going to?” she asked. “Together we are better. We can work through these challenges and opportunities.”

Ian Ferguson, general manager of safety and environment for deepwater at Shell, sees an industry and society whose actions are more and more premised on care. But he’s concerned about the pace of digital technologies within that context. “We’re not doing very well as an industry, for those of us in the safety and environment function, in really leveraging technology to exhibit that care,” he said.

The Gulf Research Program, part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, is grappling with how to incorporate new technologies into safety considerations as it moves forward with the next 25 years of its 30-year program. Established with the settlement funds paid as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster—the largest offshore oil spill in US history—the program is focused on enhancing offshore energy system safety, human health, and environmental resources in the Gulf of Mexico and other US outer continental shelf regions.

“$500 million came from 11 lives lost. We all take that very seriously and are very passionate about doing the right thing with it,” said Kelly Oskvig, who leads the program’s Safer Offshore Energy Systems initiative. As the program develops its new strategic plan, the future of oil and gas operations is a key theme. “Data and new technologies will be at the forefront of the conversations.”

With the volatility in the oil and gas market over the past several years, it might be easy to assume that safety would more easily be ignored in favor of productivity. But Jim Andrews, vice president of health, safety, and environment (HSE) for oilfield service company Schlumberger, insisted that safety and profitability are inextricably linked. “It’s remarkably simple: You almost never have an outstanding HSE performance and an appalling financial performance. Let your employees know that you care, and they do a great job for you,” he said. “Many locations with poor safety performance also have high absenteeism and low production—they all go hand in hand.”

A change in how industry defines what it’s doing and measuring is going to compel systems going forward, according to Rhonda Yoder, Chevron’s upstream general manager for HSE. “The industry is not going to let finances put us off track,” she said. “We’re changing how we define what we’re doing. For years, the measure of success was around failure rate. Now, we’re focused on the presence of safeguards. We’re no longer just having consequence conversations.”

Embracing New Technologies

Schlumberger has been very focused on the use of mobile technologies as a means to increase employee engagement, according to Andrews. “We are making a step change in performance because of mobile technologies,” he said. “I don’t think as an industry we have even scratched the surface on what is possible.”

But what do these technologies mean for safety? Yoder sees a “fantastic convergence” of time, capabilities, technologies available, cultural change, and more, but is concerned about how that convergence might affect safety. “For 30 years, it’s always been the same issue: How can we put systems and tools and information together to help people work safely?” she said. “Now we’re changing the conversation. We’ve spent years building very strong management systems, but how do we make it easier for people to do the right thing and harder for people to do the wrong thing? The safeguards and controls we think are in place … really aren’t as strong as we think they are.”

Schlumberger, for one, is actively pursuing new technologies to improve safety. In one example, the company is using an off-the-shelf app from GreenRoad to improve the driving performance of its employees. In an industry as dangerous as oil and gas, it might be surprising to realize that motor vehicle crashed are responsible for more than 40% of the industry’s work-related deaths, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

With just a little bit of technology, Schlumberger has seen a significant transformation in driving performance. “We’ve seen a staggering change in performance of how employees are driving,” Andrews said. “It really does wake you up on what the technology can do.”

Read the full story here.

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