BP, Transocean not focused on major accident prevention – US CSB

24 July 2012 20:12  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--The two companies at the centre of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico had been overly focused on personal safety issues rather than major accident prevention, the US Chemical Safety Board said on Tuesday.

The CSB officials presented the preliminary findings of the agency's investigation of the Macondo well blow-out and explosion that killed 11 crewmen on the offshore drilling rig.

The second day of a two-day hearing in Houston was focused on what the "key performance indicators" that the CSB says the offshore oil and gas production sector should adopt in order to prevent future such catastrophes.

The CSB, which investigates accidents and makes recommendations but has no regulatory role, recommended that the petrochemical industry adopt just such key performance indicators, or KPIs, including so-called "leading" and "lagging" indicators, following its investigation of the 2005 explosion and fire at the BP refinery in Texas City, which killed 15 workers and injured numerous others.

But the officials said on Tuesday that while the onshore production and refining sector had made strides in adopting such metrics, they had not widely disseminated by companies drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico.

More specifically, officials said, companies relied too heavily on reportable worker injury and illness rates as a measure of operations' overall safety, and also focused on low-frequency but high-severity incidents, rather than precursor events that might point to existing problems.

Safety board investigator Cheryl MacKenzie said investigators found several major deficiencies in the companies' safety programmes and procedures before the Macondo disaster.

For example, the companies relied on manual operations rather than automated systems to respond to warnings that hydrocarbons were moving from the well toward the rig, the ACC said.

Don Holmstrom, investigator-in-charge, also later used an automotive analogy, saying industry's approach was like "driving down the highway using the rear-view mirror".

Kim Wilson, another investigator, said there were several "layers of protection" that failed in the weeks and days leading to the explosion.

Among them was the "bridging document" used by BP and Transocean for use after the well was successfully drilled was focused solely on personal safety issues and did not address major accident prevention issues like well control. The document was generic, and did not define key process limits or controls required for the specific drilling project, Wilson said.

The Macondo operation also relied too much on manual operations, rather than automated systems, to respond to warnings of a blowout. Safety instruments and alarms that might have alerted the crew were not used, nor were "diverter valves" that could have been automatically opened, Wilson said.

In the week before the incident, Wilson said, BP and Transocean employees altered the operation's "temporary abandonment" package of documents five times, but no risk assessments were done on any of the changes. No formal testing or risk identification was done for any of the various options of the final plan for cementing the well, she said.

BP also failed to widely disseminate lessons learned from an earlier near-blowout at one of its operations in the North Sea, which did not result in any deaths, Wilson said.

Likewise, she said, company officials failed to properly investigate a near-miss incident at Deepwater Horizon in March 2010, the month before the explosion.

MacKenzie later said that companies and their employees tend to focus on the goals and objections that are being measured, at the expense of those that are not. In part because of that, she said, there is an overreliance among companies on personal safety metrics as a measure of overall safety. 

She noted that BP had only in the weeks before the incident begun implementing a new safety programme designed in the wake of the Texas City disaster in Gulf of Mexico operations.

MacKenzie said that a key performance indicator programme recently adopted by the American Petroleum Institute (API), a major industry trade group, called Recommended Practice 754, is "a significant and positive step".

But she noted that the programme, first published in 2010 as a response to CSB recommendations following the Texas City explosion, does not apply specifically to offshore operations.

It also is weighted primarily on personal safety metrics and infrequent "lagging" indicators, rather than "leading" indicators that could point to problems before major accidents, MacKenzie said.

The CSB hearing concludes on Tuesday with panel discussions involving regulatory, stakeholder, public interest and industry groups, both US-based and from other countries. The discussions are focused on various regimes of key performance indicators like the ones being recommended by the CSB.

Follow Ken Fountain on Twitter (ICIS_Ken)

By: Ken Fountain

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

For the latest chemical news, data and analysis that directly impacts your business sign up for a free trial to ICIS news - the breaking online news service for the global chemical industry.

Get the facts and analysis behind the headlines from our market leading weekly magazine: sign up to a free trial to ICIS Chemical Business.

Printer Friendly

Get access to breaking chemical news as it happens.
ICIS Global Petrochemical Index (IPEX)
ICIS Global Petrochemical Index (IPEX). Download the free tabular data and a chart of the historical index