Work in the oil and gas industry has hazards that are unique to the business. If you are a stakeholder in this industry, procedural safety is undoubtedly a major concern, along with field maturity, productivity and hitting bottom line targets.
Consider these questions:
- When was the last time a downtime or NPT event occurred on your rig?
- What was the cause?
- Did you perform an investigation? What were the findings?
- Could your crew have prevented the incident?
If your answer to the last question is yes, you need to follow up by asking an even more important question: How can you prevent the incident from happening again?
The old way of doing business in the oilfield is to find someone to blame and “run ‘em off.” While this tactic makes us feel like we have solved the problem, it doesn’t guarantee that same incident won’t happen again.
Nowadays, oilfield companies have a better solution. They identify the vulnerabilities of the procedure in question, pinpoint the section where the mistake occurred and explore options for eliminating error-causing events. If necessary, officials should follow the investigation higher up the chain of command. The goal is not to lay blame, but to identify the flaws in the process. Only then can the organization work toward achieving higher levels of safety, which is an effective way of improving efficiency and ensuring safety throughout your facility.
What Is Procedural Safety, and What Are Its Goals?
Errors in the execution of individual tasks and processes can lead to shutdowns, equipment breakdowns and production losses. These inevitably impact an operation’s output and bottom line. Errors may also result in serious injuries and death. These are outcomes that procedural safety aims to eliminate.
It should be noted, though, that the goal of procedural safety is the perfect execution of processes on and off the job site, every single time. Worker safety, although a priority for both operations and executives, is a welcome side effect. If procedural discipline becomes part of the culture, safety procedures wouldn’t have to exist independently from work processes; instead, they would be integrated into all processes.
Organizations achieve high levels of procedural safety when:
- All personnel adhere to defined operational procedures: Procedural discipline.
- All personnel think before they act, especially when troubleshooting failures they encounter for the first time.
- All qualified personnel can troubleshoot with confidence because they have defined procedures to follow.
- The organization shifts from experience-based to process-based. This eliminates actions that may be taken without a logical reason.
The Checklist Culture
The habit of checking-off duties from an ordered list of tasks, more often referred to as the “checklist culture,” figures prominently in procedural discipline and high levels of procedural safety. Some even argue that the checklist culture is the very definition of it.
A checklist is a simple tool that can dramatically reduce human error, safety issues and incidents resulting in injury. It covers standard operating procedures (SOPs), from donning protective gloves to wearing hardhats in designated areas. People can develop habits by religiously following the same checklist every day.
Checklists can be any of the following:
- Read-Do / Procedural – Consists of predecessor and successor tasks that lead to a specific outcome. Workers can only move forward to the next task if they’ve accomplished the previous task (step 1, step 2, step 3). A procedural checklist works for maintenance and safety checks. It is ideal when delegating tasks and training new crew members.
- Do-Confirm – Prevents oversight as it covers all tasks that must be accomplished in a given situation. The itemized tasks can be procedural, non-procedural, or both. This checklist is also appropriate for equipment maintenance and safety checks.
- Troubleshooting – Consists of numerous procedural checklists and is characterized by the “if yes/no, then…” format.
There’s no doubt that checklists promote efficiency and safety. The aviation industry is proof of this. Cabin crews and pilots staunchly practice the checklist culture, and it is arguably one of the reasons why flying is statistically the safest way to travel.
If the aviation industry can leverage checklists to ensure safe travel, oil and gas companies should be able to do the same for its upstream, midstream and downstream operations.
A word of warning regarding the use of check lists: Complacency due to familiarity associated with performing routine or reoccurring tasks can lead to “pencil-whipping” the checklist, or the act of checking off tasks without actually completing them. To combat this, you can require employees to initial each step or require additional information. For example, require that gauge readings be recorded, or the type of oil used. You could go so far as to require pictures to accompany a completed checklist to ensure adherence to procedural discipline.
Elements of Procedural Discipline
The implementation of procedural discipline with the desired goal of improving procedural safety hinges on several factors.
1. Leadership – The desire to develop a culture of discipline and compliance must start from the top. Supervisors and managers are instrumental in informing, teaching and training workers to follow well control procedures. They are crucial in maintaining compliance and instilling discipline in their respective teams.
2. Organizational processes – Existing processes are the foundation upon which procedural protocols are built. Appointees in charge of drafting procedures will base their recommendations on these processes.
3. Team commitment – The entire organization’s behavior towards protocols is vital to the success of any safety or efficiency procedure. If they are resistant to obeying the SOPs, the management should find out why and address those reasons.
Often, workers are uncooperative because:
- They’re unaware of the existence of defined procedures.
- They trust their personal experiences more than the process.
- They believe they are following the right procedures without realizing that they’re not.
- The procedures in place are outdated.
- The procedures do not accurately reflect the tasks being done.
- The procedures are not user-friendly.
- There is no process for updating existing procedures.
Upper management can do the following to address the issues above:
- Appoint senior and skilled operators who are working on the ground to draft sequential procedures for their respective teams. Given their experience and extensive knowledge of the site and the people they work with, they are the most qualified to draft the procedures their fellow workers will have to follow.
- Involve the crew in reviewing procedures before implementation. Doing so promotes a sense of ownership and responsibility, and they’ll be more inclined to comply once the procedures take effect.
- Ensure that procedures are designed for end users (the workers who will be required to follow the procedures upon implementation). The first two items should lead to this outcome.
- Establish a system to capture lessons learned from After Action Reviews, and make sure those suggestions are vetted and the procedure is updated.
Management can roll out SOPs, but total compliance is only possible if there’s a strong culture of continuous improvement. For procedural discipline to become a way of life, operators need to secure the commitment of the entire crew. The without buy-in throughout the organization procedural discipline initiatives are doomed to fail.
4. Process review team – Processes and oil and gas technology are constantly evolving. As such, procedures that work today may no longer apply in the future. To avoid misalignment between the drafted procedures and the actual work on site, the former should undergo regular vetting and modification whenever necessary.
When these factors are present, implementing SOPs and eventually achieving a culture of procedural discipline becomes possible.
Implementing and Promoting Procedural Discipline
Step 1: Conduct risk assessments of existing processes to identify weak points that are prone to oversight. Follow effective investigation methodologies.
Step 2: Define the goals for each procedure.
Step 3: Appoint experienced, tenured and qualified personnel to participate in the initial drafting of procedures.
Step 4: Set compliance guidelines and improvement scores.
Step 5: Vet the drafted procedures through the upper management and the end users. Ensure that the document, the end users and management expectations are all aligned.
Step 6: Roll out the procedures for implementation.
Step 7: Conduct post-rollout evaluation and seek feedback from the end users, supervisors and other parties impacted by the procedure rollout.
Step 8: Initiate subsequent re-evaluations to update procedures. It’s best to do this when you buy new equipment, have a change in leadership, or plan to make major operational changes but should be done at least once a year.
Habit Formation: The Final Challenge
You don’t achieve procedural discipline by merely sending out a memo. It doesn’t become a culture after one day of implementation. Repetition is necessary for compliance to become second nature. It takes time to form, too — at least 66 days, according to studies.
It pays to invest in methods that help to achieve a cultural change wherein the entire organization takes to heart the prescribed procedures in their respective departments. Discipline and compliance become second nature, and everyone is conscious of the fact that his or her actions, no matter how trivial, could have a significant impact on safety and efficiency.