Anybody working in the oil and gas industry understands safety is paramount. OSHA provides a long list of safety hazards, along with ways to prevent the most prevalent workplace accidents.
OSHA’s guidelines are common sense: how to prevent falls, ways to stay safe in confined spaces, steps to take to avoid exposure to machine hazards, and so on. However, in times of peak demand, getting the job done quickly may trump getting the job done safely. This should never be the case.
I worked in the oil and gas industry for more than 40 years. Unfortunately, my time in this sector, especially early on, was impacted by several people dying or being seriously injured on the job. Fortunately, I have also seen the industry move toward a zero-injury mindset after such tragedies occurred. I have seen first-hand that with the right commitment, approach, and tools, oil and gas organizations can achieve this goal.
The safety journey is ongoing, but in today’s digital transformation landscape, the right technology can help the oil and gas industry ensure its workforce – both employees and contractors – remain safe.
Working Toward Zero Injuries
In the early 1980s, I witnessed major unsafe events at the refinery where I worked, including fires that occurred with alarming regularity. Working as an operator in the mid-80s, the mantra was, “Let’s just get through the next eight hours without an incident and go home.” Can you imagine your workday being filled with such stress? At one point, 17 people lost their lives at a sister site after a major explosion occurred.
This prompted a major change regarding safety. We chose a “Goal Zero” slogan, meaning the company where I worked adopted a culture in which no injuries would be tolerated. Impossible? We thought so at the time, but it was not.
And with the amount of safety data and contractor management technology available at our fingertips today, it is 100 percent possible for safety to prevail, so long as the tools themselves are not used as a crutch. Technology in and of itself is not the answer. But having it in place with a strategy and a shift in culture can enhance safety significantly.
We created a safe learning culture in which everyone shared incidents with personal testimonials when possible. We created a safety council where the safety professionals from all companies met weekly sharing safety practices and learning opportunities. The culture we created established that risks shall never outweigh safety. For example, crawling out on a pipe to perform a task should never happen when setting up a scaffold is much safer. Similarly, a hole watch would never try to perform a scaffold builder’s job and vice versa. Although this sounds improbable, such instances occur when a category of worker is in short supply.
Overcoming Manual Challenges with Modern Tools
The biggest obstacle to safety back in the day was having new employees or contractors on-site. This has not changed. Eager to do their best, they sometimes veer(ed) from safety protocols.
In our “Goal Zero” culture, we worked to identify and make sure new workers to our site and the industry kept themselves and others out of harm’s way. That still holds true today. Now there is contractor data management technology making it much easier to categorize the person’s level of experience when new to a company and/or industry. This allows management to ensure a senior worker can guide them and help keep them safe.
Another area where technology makes a difference is personnel accountability for contractors on-site. Prior to utilizing technology, I relied on daily force reports, many times not receiving them until late in the shift.
For instance, I was once the logistics coordinator in our Emergency Operations Center. I needed to know the location of every maintenance person in the facility, but I lacked real-time visibility to who was on-site. It was stressful for all involved, especially for me having to rely on calling them on the radio or phone. The employees I was trying to reach often did not answer, so I was forced to send people to physically find them, sometimes taking hours.
Before having the technology tools available today, manually locating employees at numerous safe rally locations utilizing force reports was a nightmare. Adding to the challenge was when I needed to dispatch critical resources to the event without visibility to the skills of employees located at the various rally locations.
Accessing Real-time Visibility with Robust Software
Today, oil and gas companies can rely on software to account for employees and contractors in a matter of seconds. More than just for emergency situations, contractor data management software helps oil and gas companies ensure fatigue guidelines are adhered to, which is crucial to safety, as fatigued employees are more prone to injuries. You can now see and be alerted when employees near or exceed your defined fatigue guidelines.
Also, having visibility to crew mix ratios helps ensure you are not overstaffed with new employees and your supervision percentages are where you expect them to be. This allows you to ensure higher skilled employees and supervisors are there to oversee them.
Contractor data management software allows oil and gas company owners to run a skills report, understanding the skill ratios by craft, whether a journeyman or apprentice, for example. Also, are they a carpenter, pipefitter, crane operator or electrician?
Today’s technology helps leadership stay informed, in real time, who is on-site, and what their skills are. Although technology cannot solve all safety problems, using it to ensure fatigue expectations and crew mix ratios are being met, can make all the difference.
Keeping Workers Safer Than Ever
I am grateful for the progress the oil and gas industry has made toward always ensuring a culture of safety for all employees. We can never let our guard down. But we can rely on modern day technology to help us make the industry safer. With my last company, we were going from “Goal Zero” to “Beyond Zero” by encouraging all employees to take home what we were sharing at work, i.e., all injuries are preventable.
Bruce Grissom has more than five years of operations experience and 35 years of maintenance and turnaround experience. He worked at LyondellBasell’s Houston Refinery (280,000 barrels per day) for 38 of his 40 years and at Delek’s U.S. refinery (73,000 barrels per day) for two years. He managed Track at these two locations for over 17 years and rolled it out to additional sites with both companies. Today, Grissom is a subject matter expert at Management Controls for operations and maintenance.
Oil and gas operations are commonly found in remote locations far from company headquarters. Now, it's possible to monitor pump operations, collate and analyze seismic data, and track employees around the world from almost anywhere. Whether employees are in the office or in the field, the internet and related applications enable a greater multidirectional flow of information – and control – than ever before.