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Elected Safety Representatives Network Meeting and Seminar. Aberdeen, 2 February 2011

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Good morning. I would like to start by thanking the Step Change programme for inviting me to Aberdeen to speak to you this morning. It is always a pleasure and a privilege for me to visit this part of the UK and to be reminded of the importance of the UK’s Offshore Oil and Gas Industry.

This morning I am going to address three broad areas. Principally, I want to provide an assessment of some of the current challenges the offshore oil and gas industry is facing. I then wish to put these challenges into context to identify the lessons we’ve learnt in the past that can guide us in resolving these and finally to examine what more we need to do – and in particular the role workers can play – to improve further health and safety in this sector.

To most people “down South” what you do and the challenges you face are taken for granted. Of course if you ask people where the petrol in their cars comes from, or the gas in their homes, they know it comes “from the North Sea”, but very few have much comprehension of what it takes to get it to them. The continued exploration; the extension of platform’s lives so that they are now operating long after they were expected to be decommissioned; and of course you the workforce who make it all happen. You who make those helicopter journeys several hundred kilometres offshore to work and live together on a producing major hazard facility. I’m not exaggerating when I say that many people to whom I talk are genuinely staggered to know that today there are still some 30,000 of you employed in this industry living and working in the offshore oil and gas industry.

Sometimes it takes a wake-up call to remind people. And I believe that as we assemble here today we are in one of those periods which follows a so-called wake up call. Following last year’s major incident in the Gulf of Mexico, the level of interest in, commentary on, and general awareness about health, safety and environmental issues in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry has hit a new peak.

The European Commission moved swiftly to consider whether there was a need to call a moratorium on deep water drilling in European waters and in October of last year they published the communication “Facing the challenge of the safety of offshore oil and gas activities”.

I am very pleased to see the way in which HSE and Department of Energy and Climate Change officials have been able to influence the Commission’s thinking and move them away from some of the early aspects of their thinking, but there are still some areas of concern where we need to continue to bring our wealth of experience to bear to achieve sensible outcomes. For instance, the importance of retaining national responsibilities for the regulation of the oil and gas sector and in ensuring that the Commission’s proposal do not in any way dilute the standards or add unnecessary bureaucratic burdens which will do little to add to actual safety.

The US Oil Spill Commission has very recently published its recommendations from the Deepwater Horizon incident. They have concluded that the Macondo well incident could have been prevented; that the immediate causes of the blow out can be traced to a series of identifiable mistakes, which indicate a systemic failure of risk management and place the safety culture of the industry in doubt. The report also calls for the US to develop a proactive risk based performance approach specific to individual facilities and operations similar to the Safety Case approach that we have here in the UK.
These conclusions do not in any way give us cause to be complacent, however. HSE will continue to review the report and its recommendations carefully to identify any lessons that we can learn particularly in relation to deepwater drilling in the UK Continental Shelf.

In January, the UK government’s Energy and Climate Change Select Committee also published a report following Deepwater Horizon which has concluded that the UK has high offshore regulatory standards. The report indicates that there does not need to be a moratorium on deepwater drilling nor is there need for any further regulatory oversight from the European Commission.

This is entirely consistent with the evidence given to the Committee by HSE and officials from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. But the report does make 25 recommendations which relate to safety, environmental protection, oil spill response and liability. Twelve of these recommendations relate to HSE either as the primary lead or in areas where we will need to work jointly with DECC colleagues. UK Government has already announced that there will be a further formal review of the UK’s offshore oil and gas regulatory regime and further details of this and the timing of the review are expected to be announced very soon.

I want to make it absolutely clear that this level of attention and scrutiny of what we and other regulators do is very welcome. The challenges we all face in ensuring that this industry continues to operate safely mean that we can all learn lessons and improve upon what we do. But as I said earlier this level of attention has come about because of the Gulf of Mexico “wake-up call” – an incident which caused a major environmental disaster and, more importantly, the loss of 11 lives.

One abiding memory I will retain of all of the early coverage I saw of the incident was the level of focus on the environmental impact. I can promise you that I was as upset as anyone else when I saw the desolation wrought by the spill on the natural habitat as well as the anguish of those people who were contemplating ruin as their livelihoods were threatened. But during all that, a thought which kept running through my mind was: “what about those 11 men who died and their families?”. Their loss was the greatest of all; their loved ones will never come back.

One of the major issues here, and one which I know that you are already aware of is the importance of history. These recent tragic events remind many of us who have been around for a long time of other tragic events which have happened before and in the aftermath of which, many people were heard to say: “We must never let this happen again.” In the case of the Offshore industry in particular I am talking of course about Piper Alpha. But we don’t have to look far beyond the Offshore industry to see similar mistakes being made and lessons being learned in Texas City, Buncefield, Longford - Australia, Flixborough back in the 1970s. Hence, what I want to focus on in the rest of my talk today is to examine why it is that we seem to have to keep learning very similar lessons all over again which we should have learned and put solutions in place to fix many years ago.
Here is a summary of some of the key factors which we in HSE believe have been major contributors to the “decay” which has taken place in the  learning processes over the last 20 or 30 years in the major hazards industries:

In the offshore industry you are very much aware of these factors. They all were very much highlighted by the work HSE did under the Key Programme 3 banner. Assumptions were made about the length of time assets would be required to continue to operate. In the 1990s as oil prices declined, assets were not maintained and safety critical systems were not properly tested. But then when oil prices rose again, old and poorly maintained assets were given life extensions and the much needed maintenance work put off again, this time because of pressure to produce.

I am of course greatly encouraged by the way in which the industry has responded to the challenges highlighted in KP3 and in particular the resurgence of the Step Change programme which is hosting this event today. But we must all be very clear that this “Step Change” is for the long haul and has to be sustained, there is and can be no quick fix and move on.

So far I have talked a great deal about “systems” – the need for a robust regulatory regime, the need for asset integrity management, real and meaningful performance measures. I have deliberately left the most important aspect of any safety system until last – it is of course the people. It is the actions of the people involved who really determine how well the system operates and how safe and reliable any installation is and will be into the future.

Back in 2008, HSE organised a conference for the major hazards industry which we called “Leading from the Top”. We spend a great deal of our time engaged with those in industry who have ”safety “ in their job title. But those who have “safety manager” as their job title are there to ensure that everyone else is playing their part in managing safety as an integral part of every person’s job. Senior managers cannot delegate the leadership of health and safety – either to just one director or to any one individual. Acting as the conscience or the champion of health and safety within an organisation is one thing – fragmentation of functions to the extent that senior managers believe that safety responsibility lies with someone else is another.
The increasingly complex levels of contractorisation and outsourcing in this industry make this message even more important for people to understand.

So at our 2008 conference our target audience for leading from the top was not technical specialists and safety managers but the most senior managers in all of the major hazards industries. We used the conference as a platform to highlight:

All of our activities in the major hazards industries since that conference have reinforced the importance of leadership – of setting an example and setting the right tone – creating the right safety culture. Not only is this fundamental for getting the systems right, but it is also fundamental to encouraging everyone in the organisation to play their part and to adopt that same approach to safety.

It is clear to me that this is starting to happen here in the UK Offshore industry under the Step Change programme as well as in the continued work of the Trades Unions. I am particularly pleased to see the work that has been done on human factors and how to take the first steps, which Gordon mentioned earlier. The “Human Factors: How to take the first steps…” document aims to bring some important learning to a wide audience – managers, safety reps, workers – to improve understanding of human factor issues and how important they can be in safety management. The guide does as I have suggested, identifies learning from your own and other sectors and shows how things can go wrong. The thought provoking case studies are written in plain English and pull no punches with their strap lines:

I’m delighted but not at all surprised to hear about the widespread take up of the document.

I said at the start of this keynote address that I am privileged to be here among you today and to have this opportunity to speak to you – but this is your industry – you are part of it and you can and must play your part in creating the right culture. Every one of you, and the people you represent, matter. We simply cannot afford any more wake-up calls because all too often they mean that lives are lost. No-one has a monopoly on good ideas and no-one has all the answers. Involvement of the whole workforce is not just important, it is fundamental to building the right safety culture in any industry and no industry more so than this one. Progress is being made, not least with new guidance on NRB agreed by all parties back in 2009, but the recent review of the guidance has indicated that further work is required on education and awareness. I am delighted that there is commitment to more training for safety reps in the industry in things like accident and incident investigation, advanced risk assessment training and hazard identification and will be reporting on workforce engagement in the coming months. But I would urge you all not to overlook the importance of understanding the importance of human factors. It is the actions, inactions and mistakes of humans at all levels in organisations which lead ultimately to accidents, incidents and tragedies. There is good practice out there – some of it in your own industry and some of it onshore in other industries. Sometimes you will find it in sectors which are not so obvious – like Scottish Power who have one of the best process safety regimes I have seen and which involves everyone in the organisation from top to bottom.

One common factor across a lot of industries is the recognised danger of hydrocarbon release. I know it is something which you measure and monitor very carefully in this sector and so you should – as do we. But now take a look at some human factors in relation to a hydrocarbon release in another sector.

Now do you see what I mean about the importance of human factors?

Have a good seminar. Use this opportunity to learn from one another and to make a difference to this important but hazardous industry which you are part of.

We don’t need any more wake-up calls, we just need to get things right all the time and keep it that way and that’s about people.

Updated 2011-03-02