Great paper about how a critical management activity can have a big impact on safety. Huge thanks to Kylee Grubb for sending this in
Management Walk – Arounds: Lessons from the Gulf of Mexico Oil Well Blowout
Paper by Professor Andrew Hopkins, Australian National University (contact Andrew.Hopkins@anu.edu.au)
Many companies understand that good management requires senior managers to spend time with front line workers. Some companies build into performance agreements for senior managers a requirement that they conduct a certain number of such site visits each year. The challenge is to make productive use of these visits. Safety is often a focus for
visiting VIPs, but too often safety is understood to be a matter of “slips, trips and falls”, rather than the major hazards that can blow the plant or the rig apart. This paper will examine a VIP visit made to the Deepwater Horizon rig by senior managers from BP and from the rig owner, Transocean, just hours before the explosion. It will argue that, despite
their best of intentions, these managers fell into the trap identified above. The paper also looks at things that senior managers can do to focus attention on the most significant hazards.
About seven hours before the Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout of 2010, a group of four company VIPs helicoptered onto the drilling rig in question, the Deepwater Horizon. They had come on a “management visibility tour” and were actively touring the rig when disaster struck.
There were several indications in the hours before the blowout that the well was not under control, in fact that it was “flowing”, that is, that oil and gas were forcing their way upwards from several kilometers below the sea floor. These indicators were all either missed or misinterpreted by the rig staff. The touring VIPs, two from BP and two from the rig owner, Transocean, had all worked as drilling engineers or rig managers in the past and had a detailed knowledge of drilling operations. Had they focused their attention on what was happening with the well, they would almost certainly have recognized the warning signs for what they were, and called a halt to operations. But their attention was
focused elsewhere, and an opportunity to avert disaster was lost.
There is a tragic irony here. A major purpose of the visit was to emphasise the importance of safety, and yet the visitors paid almost no attention to the safety critical activities that were occurring during their visit. What were they doing? Where was their attention focused? How might their visit have had a happier outcome? These are the
questions this paper seeks to answer. There are lessons here for all senior managers who undertake management visibility tours in major hazard facilities. The information on which this paper is based came to light in the inquiry into the accident held jointly by the US Coast Guard and the US Department of Interior, and most of the references here are
to the transcript from that inquiry.