BP and safety culture

Interesting article here about accident-prone BP and claims that the company is setting itself up for another failure in Alaska.  The article might be a bit overblown, but BP does seem to outshine other large oil companies in its record of major failures – Texas City Refinery, pipeline leaks on the Alaskan North Slope, and of course Deepwater Horizon.

Even more interesting (from the same source) is the long series of questions that the investigative journalists asked BP.  The journalists are clearly well aware of the importance of corporate culture and the extent to which it puts a genuine focus on safety (as opposed to platitudes and rhetoric without real cultural change).  The very brief BP response sounds uncomfortably like PR spin, although it contains two elements that are quite positive:

… creation of a new safety division, reporting directly to the CEO, with sweeping powers to oversee and audit the company’s operations around the world … (it) will have the authority to intervene in all aspects of BP’s technical activities …

… BP will review and reform key aspects of its business operations, including its compensation structure … with the aim of encouraging excellence in safety and risk management.

Safety culture is a major theme of the Energy Pipelines CRC Research Program 4.  We have two PhD students starting work on topics in this area:

  • Impact of organisational design on the influence of company safety and integrity specialists (the key feature of the first BP quote above)
  • Identification of incentives schemes that most appropriately focus attention on catastrophic risk (precisely the aspect highlighted in the second BP quote)

Most responses to the BP statements are pretty cynical but if the statements are genuine then they might finally be heading in the right direction.  Time will tell.

A couple of acknowledgements are due:

  • The article about BP and Alaska is from by Abrahm Lustgarten from ProPublica
  • The inspiration for the EPCRC Research Program 4 comes from Professor Andrew Hopkins of ANU, who has written several highly recommended books on safety and culture including Lessons from Longford and Failure to Learn: the BP Texas City refinery disaster.
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This entry was posted in Eng'g philosophy, Incidents, Risk assessment. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to BP and safety culture

  1. Mike Dunkerton says:

    Dare I suggest that the hydrocarbon industry has found the appropriate risk level that society finds acceptable? The fact that these incidents continue to happen, and the companies involved are still in business suggersts that the companies have it right. If society genuinely found such incidents unacceptable, political pressure would make the companies involved sit up and take notice. Compare the hydrocarbon industry with the nuclear industry. After 3 Mile Island, the nuclear industry has dramatically improved its record, at least in the western world. Why is this? It’s because society simply won’t accept the risk of radioactive fallout and mass evacuations, and the industry was forced to self regulate on top of regulatory oversight. The same hasn’t happened in the hydrocarbon industry because we are comfortable with what is happening in terms of environmental damage and multiple fatalities. Sorry to point it out, but we are all to blame.

    • petertuft says:

      I agree completely – the acceptability of risk is socially determined. However the bar is gradually rising, and it gets pushed up by disasters such as Three Mile Island. In the US there is outrage at incidents such as San Bruno, but quite a lot of the discussion about that was about who should pay for upgrading old degraded pipelines. And of course the consumers don’t want to pay more for their gas so there may not be a lot of change in the management and regulation of pipelines in that country. However 8 deaths is quite a few and previous large pipeline incidents in the US (Carlsbad, Bellingham) have resulted in legislative change, so it will be interesting to see whether there is any further change in the aftermath of San Bruno

  2. Pingback: Safety Culture Research | Pipelines OZ

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