New Frontiers Identified in Human-Factors Research

In response to incidents such as the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in April 2010, the oil and gas industry has worked to generate methods that help ensure safe and environmentally responsible offshore operations. Despite these efforts, a research fellow at the Ocean Energy Safety Institute (OESI) argued that incident prevention methods will not be effective unless industry generates facility, equipment, and system designs that consider potential human-factors issues.

At a joint forum titled “Human Factors To Support Safer and Effective Offshore Energy Operations,” held by OESI and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, S. Camille Peres spoke about the progress being made in researching the effects of human factors in offshore projects. Peres is an assistant professor of educational and occupational health at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health.

In her presentation, Peres discussed the role human factors can play in major incidents, focusing primarily on the issues surrounding the Deepwater Horizon explosion. She said that incident and subsequent incidents around the world, such as the leaking of 6,000 tonnes of gas from Total’s Elgin platform in the UK North Sea in March 2012 and the November 2012 explosion of a production platform owned by Black Elk Energy in the US Gulf of Mexico (GOM), have made the subject even more important for owners, operators, and their onsite workers.

“We’re still seeing these incidents happen,” Peres said. “It’s not like Macondo is the be-all/end-all with regards to what we need to be focusing on. And so, it’s really time for us to take a serious reflection and talk together as a group from different industries, from different focuses, to be able to integrate what we know is impacting these incidents.”

In December, OESI released a paper that summarized the existing academic literature devoted to the adoption and integration of human factor methods, principles, and processes. [Read the paper here (PDF).] Peres said one of the major findings that came out of its study was that much of the peer-reviewed science on the subject focuses on the UK North Sea, with several studies based on the explosion of the Piper Alpha platform in July 1988. While there is some research originating from the US, she said there is not much that specifically deals with the GOM. In addition, she said there is a lack of research demonstrating the effectiveness of specific solutions related to human-factors-related issues.

“There are a lot of groups that are generating solutions, things that will help with safety climate, situational awareness, and things like this; but, right now, unfortunately, we don’t have much available with regard to the efficacy of these solutions or how much they changed incident numbers,” Peres said. “Did they improve performance in a way that we wanted to see? We’re not seeing this in the peer-reviewed science, this evidence that will let us know what the industry needs to be spending its money on. For practitioners, you want to be able to go to your bosses and say, ‘I’m asking you to write this big check for career resource management, and here’s the evidence that it works.’”

In the paper, Peres et al. argued that the lack of actionable research was in part because of the ethical difficulties involved in setting up experiments that could accurately reflect operational conditions: An experiment that affords attribution of cause and effect in a hazardous condition increases the chance of a disaster that puts people at risk. With that in mind, an operator looking to make decisions on such things as rig design, safety programs, and training in research must often take inferential leaps.

Despite this handicap, the paper suggested ethical methods of conducting empirical studies to identify casual relationships between the variables that often affect human factor performance. One such suggestion was for researchers and businesses to use pre/post designs that compare the outcomes of interest—such as the number of safety incidents and the effectiveness of performance—before and after various intervention techniques like interface redesign and the implementation of an alarm management strategy. Scenario-specific training facilities can also be useful for operators.

In addition to identifying gaps in human-factors research, Peres et al. examined potentially important areas of future human-factors research: