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The evolution of safety in the oil and gas industry

11.01.2011  |  Lyons, C.,  KBR, 

Keywords: [safety] [environment] [training] [accidents] [process safety] [quality programs] [fatalities] [accident prevention] [OSHA]

As a safety professional with 25 years of experience in the hydrocarbon and chemical industries, I’ve had the unique opportunity to view first-hand the evolution of safety. Upon entering this field, much of the early drive for safety within organizations was centered on loss of physical assets and the moral issues around loss of life. I remember hearing of a refinery in the early 1960s whose safety goal was to have only five fatalities during the coming year. This wasn’t because companies lacked a concern for the well-being of their employees. The oil business was simply perceived as dangerous, with injuries viewed as inherent to the nature of this business.

First job.

I started as a safety engineer in 1986, working for a polystyrene plant. With the creation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulatory requirements in the mid-1970s, safety professionals in this era played an enforcement role, ensuring compliance with OSHA guidelines designed to train companies and employees on proper safety standards to reduce workplace injuries. The use of hard hats, safety glasses and other personal protective equipment was the primary focus of safety programs back then. While this era marked progress, the industry as a whole struggled to fully integrate safety into its core business and kept it separate as a compliance function.

Present day.

We know the health, safety and well-being of employees should be of foremost importance to any company, and it is a fundamental part of successfully conducting business. The mistake the industry was making was that safety professionals attempted to rank safety in a vertical order of importance. Safety professionals wrote policies with a primary focus on employee safety. Unfortunately, these policies failed to recognize the correlation between the guidelines and the operating impact of their content. This created unique challenges through the next decade.

Safety is a key business element.

Even while companies fine-tuned safety procedures, safety remained separate from operations and it was primarily compliance-driven. Then, in the late 1980s, the industry was forced to reassess the role of safety after two major incidents—in 1988, a catastrophic fire and explosion on an offshore platform in the North Sea, and, in 1989, a fatal chemical plant explosion in Pasadena, Texas. Public and safety regulators began to see that the existing mechanism for policing the industry was not sufficient, and that additional influence was needed to improve workplace safety.

These two significant incidents in the energy business became the catalyst for a paradigm shift in the safety culture of organizations. Companies understood, more than ever before, the need to integrate safety and operations.

Today, the most successful safety programs are those recognizing that safety cannot be viewed in a vertical order of importance. Rather, safety must be looked upon as a value which is inherent to every part of a company’s operation with an underlying commitment to creating an incident- and injury-free work environment for all employees.

Engage the workforce for an effective safety program.

A good safety system in the workplace has tools to help employees look out for themselves and their fellow workers. It takes more than just safety personnel to implement an effective safety program—an essential factor in the equation is the company’s safety practices. Perhaps the most important elements of an effective safety program are leadership support and visibility. An organization that can look to leadership to actively support safety and engage employees, vendors, subcontractors and clients about the importance of safety in the business is most successful in the safety arena. In support of this idea, at KBR, key leaders take part in onsite safety leadership visits that have been effective in decreasing injury rates.

With leadership onboard, the next key element to an effective safety program is employee engagement. This involves a robust task analysis process as well as employee safety teams. An effective employee safety team should include all levels of employees to ensure a wide variety of input from the various groups on a job. It is important for the teams to be led by operations and craft employees with safety representatives involved as an advisor or facilitator. Additional key elements to promote safety programs are those that address employee behaviors and employee commitment to safety in the workplace. At KBR, our Shaping Accident Free Environments (SAFE) program uses employee commitment to help drive behavior changes. Employees are encouraged to intervene when they witness an unsafe condition or see someone working unsafely. Every employee must embrace his or her obligation to intervene and stop unsafe activities.

Looking to the future of safety.

Many companies place safety as a core value. Ensuring the safety of people—making sure each employee returns home daily as healthy, functional and productive as when they came to work—is paramount for the success of any business.

The hydrocarbons business will be a leader in safety improvement going into the future. We continue to find ways to improve safety and take performance to the next level.

The testament to the industry’s success lies in the performance of KBR and other companies that have achieved, and continue to achieve, record safety while executing megaprojects across the globe. To ensure our future success as an integral function of any business, we, as safety professionals, must continue to seek and implement new, innovative ways to identify and control the risks with which we are presented. HP 

The author 


Chuck Lyons, P.E., is KBR’s vice president of Global Quality, Health, Safety and Environment (QHSE). He coordinates the global QHSE strategy with senior leadership and oversees the QHSE support to projects globally. Mr. Lyons joined KBR in 2004. Prior to his current position, he served as director of KBR Onshore HSE. He holds a BS degree in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University and has more than 25 years of industry experience, including QHSE leadership positions at ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Tenneco and Schlumberger. 

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Ujwal Ritwik

The article presents a rather simplistic view of state of affairs, bordering a kind of misrepresentation. Catastrophic incidents like Texas City Refinery (2005) continue to happen. Many of the policy and value proclaims are skin deep. Agreed that safety (and environment protection) has improved during the past 25 years but it's not commensurate with developments made in other technical disciplines, and it's not even.

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