Monday, 9 May 2011


One of the predominant features of life on the open seas, aboard a rig or drillship in the enduring quest for oil, is the safety culture. Rigs are inherently dangerous places, with all manners of alternative ways to kill a man, and so an awareness of safety is important. Common sense counts for much, but fastidiousness in the correct upkeep of equipment is also paramount as was tragically demonstrated last year, when a crane on a Transocean rig I was on catastrophically failed, catapulting three guys into the water, with the body of one never recovered.

So a safety culture offshore is a good thing, but of course to keep tabs on the ongoing safe practice of a rig means a trail of paperwork will be generated. Naturally, maintenance of equipment should be backed up by evidence it's fit for use, but what about making sure personnel are acting safely? Can we really trust that common sense will prevail?

The answer to that is a resounding "no". Offshore life combines a range of nationalities and a range of imbeciles, and common sense can take a backseat to brash arrogance, pig ignorance, the desire for quick results, and sheer exhaustion. Thus to the oil industry's credit, a safety culture has been drummed into the workforce for many years now, to urge the need for efficiency rather than urgency, to highlight the importance of stopping a task if you are unsure of what is involved, and to empower any individual on the rig to stop any task they feel is unsafe.

High-minded principles indeed, though in practice for the third parties, such as I, you're going to get bawled at by an American if you suggest he pause for a while in his duties so as to optimise his own safety. Nonetheless, the theory that every individual can stop any other to ensure good safe working practice is a good one, just let down by the actual type of individual that tends to be involved in offshore operations.

The problem further breaks down in the area of common sense when the paperwork issue comes into play. Bureaucracy infamously has never been bedfellows with common sense, and in offshore safety culture actually works against it in some cases. The desire to tick all the boxes overrides the desire for practical safety, and the desire for "100% safety participation" doesn't mean all workers being careful and efficient in their duties and rather involves everyone filling in a nonsense bit of paper every day whether it's of any value or not.

This bit of paper is the STOP card system, or rather on this Transocean rig the START card system, because they want to be more positive about safety no doubt. (The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year was, incidentally, a Transocean rig - the Deepwater Horizon. I'm on the Deepwater Millennium.) This is a slip of paper to note down any safety observations, positive or negative, made throughout the day. It's a good idea, but with one special failing on this rig - 100% participation is demanded, so that everyone can pat themselves on the back and say what a good safe job they've done. (Incidentally too, on the year of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed eleven people,destroyed an entire rig, and caused the worst oil spill in history, Transocean awarded its executives millions of dollars in bonuses for a record year in safety, saying,“Notwithstanding the tragic loss of life in the Gulf of Mexico, we achieved an exemplary statistical safety record as measured by our total recordable incident rate and total potential severity rate. As measured by these standards, we recorded the best year in safety performance in our Company’s history, which is a reflection on our commitment to achieving an incident free environment, all the time, everywhere.”)

The problem with enforced 100% START card participation is that is takes no account of common sense. In my first week here, before our equipment was on board, I spent a day or two going no further than from my room to the galley. There were few high risk encounters en route during this ten metre stroll, so I had to simply compliment the cleaner on doing a good "safe" job. Currently, during an eye-of-the-storm calm spell, I'm only going from my room to my working unit outside - not much danger. The counter-argument to those who say they've not done anything to warrant START card observations is that they should get out there and find something, but this is plainly stupid as a bunch of guys poking around in corners looking for dangers is obviously more dangerous than them simply staying in bed. I've heard of people, in the past, of just making stuff up too, just to fill their quota.

Non-compliance, on this rig, means being run off the rig, i.e. sent home, possibly losing your job. It happened to one guy just a few days ago, and possibly someone else today. Never mind that by sending people home without replacement means their colleagues being overworked and operations jeopardised, Transocean want to maintain their 100% record and ensure their executives continued bonuses.

Dutifully, I've been filling in my daily cards, using it as a means to complain about the lack of basic facilities, especially in the changing room which now lacks soap and handtowels, and the weekly drill at 1pm which interrupts me and all other nightshift right in the middle of our sleep. Of course, I don't expect these to be acted on - after all, soap and handtowels is a bit of a stretch for the world's largest offshore drilling company - but at least it will annoy the Health and Safety guy on board who has to put up with my petty complaints daily.

Recently, in order to inject a little creativity and thinking into my cards, I've started to play with the prose structure of my START cards too. Rather than the ramble of a complaint about soap, I've turned to haiku, which as my learned reader will know is a traditional form of Japanese poetry, which uses three lines in a 5-7-5 syllable format. This has had the unexpected impact of making my START cards actually quite enjoyable to write, as well as having giving them a pleasing rhythm. It's also massively increased my productivity (in writing START cards, at least, not in actual useful work) as I've written five in the last two days.

Here, for your reading, are my most recent five. They focus on my current peeves of the boat drill and the lack of soap (called Gojo - it's a special and very effective version).

One o'clock boat drills
Interrupt sleep of nightshift
Tiredness means mistakes

Lifeboat-2 T-cards
In disarray, disorder
Finding mine is slow

Fixed weekly boat drills
Lack element of surprise
Too predictable

Cable on walkway
Came free of safety cover
I tucked it back in

Changing room Gojo
Has been empty for a week
I can't clean my hands

As you can see, they embrace they very best of what both START card and Japanese poetry have to offer, and I just hope the Health and Safety guy has the education to appreciate them (he doesn't). I may embrace other poetical forms (limerick? iambic pentameter?) as the job wears on.


Joseph said...


We've got the same thing and it's carried on in the office so I've got a similar problem. X amount of observations a month whilst sitting in your cube staring out the window. I have just safely poured a drink of water in a covered plastic cup, that may have to go in.

John said...

You think that's bad you should see the police. The health and safety is bad but "Diversity" is an absolute minefield of newspeak and "you can't say that."