The safety of offshore personnel is once again at the top of the international news agenda. At the time of writing, BP and Transocean are back in the dock in the US, this time to face charges of gross negligence over their roles in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), in which 11 workers died. If BP, the owner of the Macondo well, is found guilty, the beleaguered UK multinational may have to pay as much as $17.6 billion in Clean Water Act fines.

It’s a story that will resonate with Kristen Ray, vice-president of health, safety, environment and community at BHP Billiton Petroleum. Prior to joining the Anglo-Australian operator in 2008, she worked for BPin a number of engineering and operational roles. No-one knows better than Ray the challenges faced by oil and gas majors as they strive to standardise, measure and maintain personnel safety and training across an increasingly diversified global portfolio.

"BHP Billiton Petroleum employsa variety of different health, safety, environment and community (HSEC) processes, but there are three cornerstones," she says. "Firstly, we have internal and external audits of our management systems to ensurethat what we do meets our minimum expectations.

"Secondly, robust risk management is used to identify preventative and mitigating controls, which we can then define maintenance routines for to ensure the controls are managed. Thirdly, our engineers evaluate the effectiveness of those critical controls to determine whether or not an intervention is necessary.

"It’s a holistic approach to safety that starts with robust policies and ensuring that those policies are met. Then, once you’ve identified your risk, you make sure that the risk management framework is in place and properly executed."

Zero Harm and system custodianship

This combination of reactive and proactive safety management is embodied in two companywide initiatives: Zero Harm and system custodianship. Ray is quick to point out that the former is much more than simply a set of HSEC guidelines; rather, it is built on the belief that effective personnel safety management relies on a balance between a centralised system that executes and reports on systematic processes across the company’s entire asset base, and an embedded culture of personal accountability.

"We don’t think of Zero Harm as an initiative; we think of it as a way of working and thinking," she explains. "It’s a core value that we believe is achievable and involves making sure we have leading and lagging indicators across all aspects of HSEC to inform our management of the global performance, help to identify trends, and look at the areas that need focus or recognition.

"We don’t think of Zero Harm as an initiative; we think of it as a way of working and thinking."

"We view it as the responsibility of all BHP Billiton employees to implement and control their activities to drive Zero Harm. It’s the HSE professionals’ job to help develop the systems, make sure best practices are being shared, and provide governance and assurance, but it is not solely HSE driven. It takes everybody to focus on HSE and that’s the key driver for us."

Nowhere is this emphasis on personal responsibility more visible than in the company’s system custodian programme. Here, a nominated expert manages specialised safety-critical equipment designed to prevent or mitigate the effects of a major accident. This includes piping and vessels that contain hydrocarbons and other hazardous materials, gas and leak-detection systems, firefighting equipment, lifeboats and radar warning systems to detect possible ship collisions.

The methodology also encompasses training for the named system custodians, clearly defining roles and responsibilities for engineering and operational teams. A monthly ‘health check’ gives senior management granular insight into the health of safety-critical equipment.

"We also started implementing after-action reviews," says Ray. "After a job is complete, we carry out an assessment of what went well, what didn’t and what we can do better; for example, could we have engineered or designed out an issue to make it safer? In this way, you are really engaging the crew that’s actually doing the work to come up with these ideas. Over time, you start to see that as the personnel learn more about safety, they start to get more proactive."

Personnel safety performance: in practice

To enhance safety compliance and reporting, and to drive a more continuous, hands-on approach to system custodianship, BHP Billiton has implemented its safety metrics across all of its conventional business units – no small undertaking for an upstream organisation that works large, proven basins everywhere from Australia to the Irish and South China Seas.

In light of this diverse geographical footprint, Ray cites an example of how the approach to Zero Harm has added meaningful value in the field. She points to BHP Billiton’s deepwater operations in the GoM, where the company’s deepwater Shenzi platform produces from a field estimated to hold recoverable reserves of between 350 and 400 million barrels of oil equivalent.

"If you take a look at personnel safety performance on our deepwater GoM rigs over the last five or six years, you’ll see consistent year-on-year improvement," says Ray. "It’s a journey that started out with people understanding the basics – from job risk assessments to dropped-object hazards – but over time, people began to buy into Zero Harm and find better, more innovative ways to do things that aren’t necessarily a major process or programme, and don’t cost much.

"Nearly half the population of the oil industry is going to be retiring in the not-too-distant future. We have to make sure that there is rigorous and proper training of all new personnel."

For example, the people on the rigs thought we were nuts when we moved to hands-free lifting, but then they really started to see the value in terms of eliminating things like pinched hands and fingers. It’s just a different way of working and thinking."

Similarly, after acquiring Petrohawk Energy Corporation in 2011, Ray and the rest of BHP Billiton Petroleum’s HSEC team began the task of aligning safe work practices for new onshore shale operations, resulting in a new generation of land drilling rigs that include more automation to remove employees from risky activities.

"There are some processes that we need to modify slightly since they are different businesses," she says. "However, the fundamentals stay the same; we can’t just drive it with our people, it has to be a holistic approach."

Security issues

This strategy also extends to security as the industry enters increasingly unstable environments in search of ever-dwindling reserves. Recent attacks against oil and gas infrastructure offshore Nigeria and in the southern Niger Delta were a sobering reminder of the need to protect offshore employees, and avoid damaging destabilisation of the world’s hydrocarbon-based energy supply.

"In many areas that can be described as challenging environments – we have assets in Pakistan and joint venture operations in Algeria – security ties in directly with good community and stakeholder engagement; we have made sure that people understand what we are doing and how we do it," explains Ray.

"Again, it goes back to risk assessment and ensuring that effective security systems are in place to allow the business to operate safely and successfully. The other major challenge is the lack of, or minimal, infrastructure in these environments, which can impact things such as our access to emergency services for medical response."

Legislation and human capital

One further challenge in the longer term may be the ‘great crew change’. Does Ray fear this industry-wide talent drain could affect BHP Billiton’s ability to attract a new generation of HSEC professionals adept at working under increased scrutiny from both the public and lawmakers?

"It’s a definite challenge," she says. "Nearly half the population of the oil industry is going to be retiring in the not-too-distant future, and we have to make sure that there is rigorous and proper training of all new industry personnel. There is a clear acceptance that we have to take graduates and quickly get them to perform at a higher level. We have also seen a large degree of legislative change. In the GoM, the introduction of a safety and environmental management system has required us to review our existing HSE management system, as well as contractor management processes and oil spill response requirements," she adds.

Underpinning BHP Billiton’s HSEC strategy is a belief that process and personnel safety management should not be viewed as separate operational silos, but instead are inextricably linked. It’s a long-term approach that stands the company in good stead as it continues its aggressive expansion drive.

"Our view is large, long-life, low-cost assets," says Ray. "If we want very large assets, then we will be in one place for a very long time, and in order to make that successful from a business perspective, we have to get the sustainability aspects correct. For us, that means getting HSEC right for the people who work for us and for the communities we work in."