Despite a number of recent and high-profile jetliner crashes, commercial aviation has entered into a new era of safety. Seven of the past 10 years have seen the fewest fatal accidents in the industry’s nearly 7-decade history and this year is on track to be the safest yet.
Aside from the significant improvements made in aircraft reliability, much of the progress has been attributed to the communication and operational training program known as crew resource management (CRM).
The basic principle of CRM is to encourage key personnel to speak up when they detect problems or notice mistakes while maintaining the hierarchy of authority.
The concept was born from the ashes of the aviation industry’s deadliest accident at the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 where 583 people were killed when two Boeing 747s collided on the runway. A dense fog that enveloped the airport the day of the crash certainly played a role. However, what ultimately led to the disaster was the poor communication between pilots and air traffic controllers and the bad decision making that ensued.
In the search for answers on how to avoid such preventable tragedies in the future, the experts determined that improving communications in the cockpit was critical. In 1979, CRM was developed and by the 1990s, it became a hallmark of airline training programs around the world. Today, CRM is credited with saving the lives of countless passengers and airline crews.
The hope is that someday the same can be said for the offshore drilling sector. Five years removed from the Macondo subsea blowout that killed 11 crewmen and led to the worst oil spill in US history, the offshore sector has made significant strides in work safety. Yet it remains to be seen whether that event will lead to the widespread adoption of CRM in the offshore sector.
One of the safety experts pioneering the effort to see that it does is George Galloway, the director and cofounder of The Well Academy in Apeldoorn, The Netherlands. The training facility is one of four in the world participating in a CRM pilot program organized by the International Well Control Forum (IWCF), a leading certification body for the oil and gas industry. In October, Lloyd’s Register Energy’s Training Academy announced it was partnering with The Well Academy to develop new courses using CRM, the first of which is expected to be offered this month.
Galloway has nearly 30 years of experience working in the North Sea as a petroleum engineer involved in various offshore operations. He came to understand the value of CRM through a safety-focused work group that in 2011 brought together industry groups and regulators from the UK, Norway, and The Netherlands to improve the training of drilling crews.
“The early program that we developed was still very much technically based,” he said. “We were putting people through various well control situations and assessing them more on their technical competence. But what we realized was missing were the human factors.”
The following year, Galloway and other oil and gas industry professionals founded The Well Academy, which would implement many of the lessons learned from the work group. To address the human factor issue, they brought in an aviation psychologist who incorporated CRM into the school’s rig floor simulator training exercises.
“It completely changed the whole dynamics of the course and the program,” said Galloway. He explained that the focus shifted from assessing the technical abilities of crews to assessing their behavior when dealing with a well control event.
Assistant drillers, drillers, tool pushers, offshore installation managers, and operator representatives—all the people on a rig responsible for a well’s construction—take part in the simulations. Each scenario begins just like a typical crew change in the real world. The trainees are given an update on what the previous shift completed and a well schematic before going to work.
“And then we will continue to play an event,” Galloway said. “They may be in the process of circulating with a heavy fluid and we will suddenly introduce water into the circulation, which lightens the fluid and could potentially lead to an influx of hydrocarbons into the well.”
Once a wrench is thrown into the works, the CRM assessors observe how the team recognizes the problem, and more importantly, how it responds. Specifically, they are grading the crews on their situational awareness, decision making, leadership, teamwork, and communication skills.
Galloway said when teams go through the first simulation, their communication deficiencies typically exacerbate the problems they face. Those in the leadership roles begin issuing orders and attempt to take control of the situation. Without CRM training, Galloway said, “We will often find that he will take them down the wrong path and they will create a blowout because they have not dealt with the situation quick enough.”
He added that following the simulator exercise, many of the junior crew members admit that while they felt mistakes were being made, they did not have the confidence to counter the orders of those in charge. As CRM is implemented, these communication barriers are eroded.
As it enters its third year of CRM and simulator-based training, The Well Academy recently launched a refresher course for companies that want to send their drilling crews back through the program. The refresher program focuses largely on job preparation and the use of checklists. Galloway said he would like to see the type of program his school offers become an industry standard; as it stands today, there are no requirements for offshore drilling crews to receive training in CRM or simulators.
Many companies only send individual drilling crew members to training facilities to complete the mandatory classroom coursework and written exams, which were recently overhauled in response to the lessons learned from Macondo. With the industry now facing a prolonged downturn in oil and gas prices, Galloway expressed concern that the offshore sector will train drilling crews only to meet the minimum requirements.
“A big challenge we face right now is the current climate we are in,” he said. “Everyone is reducing costs, and we find that in a cost-cutting environment, training is often one of the first things that tends to go.”
Even before the oil price crash, Galloway said the industry’s investment in proactive measures such as CRM and training simulators was lagging far behind the billions spent on capping stacks and other spill response systems.
“If you look at what has happened post-Macondo, and where a lot of the focus and attention has been given, it has really been given to containing a situation should it happen again—rather than focusing resources and money on the prevention,” he said.
From Air to Sea: Introducing Crew Resource Management to the Offshore Industry
Trent Jacobs, JPT Senior Technology Writer
14 November 2015