How Safety Professionals Can Contribute to Risk Decision-Making: Lessons From the Deepwater Horizon Movie

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It’s hard to forget the images of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig, engulfed in flames following the April 20, 2010, explosion that killed 11 workers and poured more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Those images are further memorialized in the 2016 movie Deepwater Horizon, featuring an all-star cast that included Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell and John Malkovich. According to Joel Haight, Ph.D., P.E., CSP, CIH, while the movie certainly dramatizes the events and does not claim to be 100 percent factual, it presents realistic situations to which all safety professionals can relate.

“Scenes in the movie portray situations in which a safety professional could make positive contributions to operational and financial decisions that are made,” he says.

For many viewers, the movie provides their first upfront look at life on an oil rig and the many hazards workers encounter in this rugged environment.

“The hazards of flammable and toxic materials in a high-pressure system are the most obvious hazards in a drilling operation,” explains Haight, an associate professor of industrial engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Being on an offshore platform heightens these risks simply because there’s nowhere else to go if something goes wrong.

“An orderly evacuation in life boats is always the plan, but as we see in the movie, an orderly evacuation for everyone may not always be possible,” he says.

Hollywood loves a villain, and this movie is no exception. The movie portrays BP executive Donald Vidrine as the chief culprit in pushing operations to continue, despite significant warning signs of an impending disaster. It’s likely that financial considerations influenced his actions, given that the well was nearly six weeks behind schedule and reportedly costing BP $1 million per day.

“Those factors could quite possibly change one’s risk tolerance,” Haight says. But the fateful decisions made that day on the rig weren’t the only poor ones.

“Other decisions made it possible for 10 percent of the rig’s equipment to be in need of repair,” Haight observes. “Those decisions and resource commitments would have been made by others, including those at higher levels.”

It’s also likely that no one on board had the engineering expertise to challenge decisions as they were being made.

“This is where safety professionals could play a huge role,” Haight says. “Too often, safety people will talk about risk assessment in general but are often not prepared to talk about the technical or cost sides of the situation in question.”

By learning the technical details of the operation, Haight believes OSH professionals can be equal contributors in the decision-making process.

“Safety professionals who can hold up the risk assessment side of the discussion while fully understanding the technical and financial sides of the argument would do a better job of helping to maintain the safety and production balance to ensure a tolerable risk level,” he explains.

The movie provides several other examples of situations in which safety professionals can influence actions taken and decisions made.

“As noted, 10 percent of the rig’s mission-critical equipment was in disrepair and contributed to the explosion. Safety professionals should be in that discussion, explaining what probability of failure means, especially as it relates to protective systems and how it affects overall risk to the platform,” Haight explains. They could also share the merits of predictive maintenance and failure rate reductions and their positive impact on the overall risk of loss of containment.

The best way to be part of such discussions, Haight says, is to know the technical engineering and production details of the situation and to understand what drives the business.

“Until safety professionals learn the business, earn the respect of their colleagues and improve their technical understanding of the business as well as the risk, they won’t be invited to the table as an equal partner in decision-making around engineering, production, maintenance, cost or risk,” he says.

Ultimately, risk can’t be zero and neither can the profit margin, so organizations must strive for a workable balance. That’s most possible when representatives from operations, scheduling, safety/risk and other key units are involved in every meeting, discussion and decision.

“Safety professionals often express concern over not being invited to those types of discussions,” Haight says. “We have to earn the respect of our colleagues by contributing to all decisions in a way that maintains the balance between risk and profit.”

During Safety 2018 Session S515, “Critical Analysis of the Deepwater Horizon Movie From a Safety Professional Perspective,” Haight will offer more insights about how OSH professionals can make positive contributions to the operational and financial decisions that are made each day.

Joel Haight, Ph.D., P.E., CSP, CIH, is an associate professor of industrial engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh where he teaches and conducts research in the areas of productivity, human factors engineering and safety engineering. Prior to that, he was chief of the Human Factors Branch at NIOSH's Office of Mine Safety and Health Research. Haight is a professional member of ASSE and editor of the ASSE publication The Safety Professionals Handbook.

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