Changing regulatory oversight of safety management in the US offshore sector

The Transportation Research Board (TRB) has released the interim report of the Committee on the Effectiveness of Safety and Environmental Management Systems for Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Operations, which is freely downloadable.

The report explores methods for the US regulators to investigate/audit the implementation and effectiveness of safety and environmental management systems (SEMS) among offshore operators, who should be tasked with investigating/auditing, and the competencies investigators may be expected to have.

The final report is expected to be released after the release of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and National Research Council (NRC) report into the likely causes of the Deepwater Horizon incident of 2010.

SEMS

Stemming from the 2010 mandating of API RP 75 by the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE), companies operating on the US outer continental shelf are required to have SEMS in place by the end of 2012.  SEMS should work to mitigate human factors root causes in personal safety, major accident hazards (MAHs) and environmental damage.

SEMS will be required to be audited by independent third parties (I3Ps).

In context

The report states that SEMS should operate within four wider organisational processes for managing HSE:

  1. a mechanism for managing HSE (i.e. the SEMS plan);
  2. individual competency;
  3. a strong safety culture, and
  4. personal motivation to behave in the correct way (rewards and consequences).

The implication is that the successful implementation of SEMS cannot simply focus on the SEMS plan itself, but on its use and effectiveness within these wider processes.   This should also be the focus of the auditing and investigation of SEMS.

Investigation methods

The report explores nine possible investigation methods and their advantages and disadvantages, including detailed audits, compliance inspection, peer review-assists, whistle-blower programmes, the use of key performance indicators (KPIs) and mechanical metrics (e.g. from sensors), etc.

Some methods, such as the use of mechanical sensors or KPIs, may be difficult in practice as it is currently unclear which metrics can be used as indicators of an effective SEMS.  Others, such as compliance inspection, may fail to encourage operators to take full ownership and interest in the implementation of SEMS, especially as regulation moves away from prescription-based to risk management-based.

The concern over ownership may also influence who is best to carry out SEMS inspections.  The report states the case for self-inspection, I3P-inspection, regulator inspection, and joint operator/regulator inspection, noting that independent inspections may discourage operators to take full ownership of SEMS, instead delegating the responsibility of performance monitoring on I3Ps.

Competence

The competencies required of SEMS investigators are likely to be broad.  SEMS ruling includes both prescriptive regulations and performance standards, and so SEMS investigation will not only require the reporting of violations of regulations but also identifying weaknesses in the system and opportunities for improvement.

Investigators will also need to be able to focus on both personal safety and process safety, and it is likely that a team of investigators with a number of competencies will be required to complete an audit/investigation.

Lastly investigators will need training and certification.

Commentary

This report represents the initial findings of the committee, but gives an indication of how the US offshore sector may be regulated in the next few years.

Whilst the committee has reviewed various inspection methods in light of how well they encourage operators to take ownership of the process, it is perhaps worth noting that not all inspection methods explored in the report will be suitable for all organisations, as the effectiveness of methods may depend on the safety culture of the organisation.

The 2010 OGP publication A guide to selecting appropriate tools to improve HSE culture provides some guidance on the types of HSE tools that are appropriate for different cultural levels.  It suggests that some methods may not be practical within more reactive cultures, whilst other methods may not allow organisations with more advanced cultures to take full ownership of the investigation process.  For example, peer assists are only really appropriate for ‘proactive’ and ‘generative’ cultures (the two highest cultures on the safety culture ladder).

If the culture of the US offshore sector is to adapt from a prescriptive regulatory framework to a broader approach to risk management using a variety of methods, do operators therefore need to consider their own safety cultures when selecting appropriate investigation methods?  Are a variety of methodologies needed?  Could there be a danger if the methodologies advocated are too narrowly defined?

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