Oil patch safety gets personal for most professionals.
By Paul Wiseman
Scratch almost any safety professional and you’ll likely find, just under the surface, a horrific work-related tragedy that relentlessly drives everything they do. These images are burned into their psyche with no less force and agony than that of a branding iron searing the flesh.
Krisha Marker does safety training and owns MM Safety with her husband, Mike. For her it’s the grisly image of nine bodies scattered across a rural Denver City property in pickups or sprawled in the yard, stopped dead in their tracks in a desperate attempt to escape the hydrogen sulfide cloud they knew could kill them.
They were her family.
For WildWell’s Manager of Instruction and Development, Steve Richert, it’s the vision of a coworker being burned alive in a well explosion that left only the man’s kneecap available for burial.
He was Richert’s best friend.
Saulsbury Industries’ HSE Director, Russell Battles, has a less horrific but no less urgent raison d’être. Battles’ father, grandfather, and uncle were all in the construction business. When the younger Battles was 16, a 26-year-old man on his father’s crew was electrocuted, “and I saw what that did to my father,” he recalls.
But what pushed Battles into safety full time was when his own son went to work in the oil field on the night shift—and Battles found himself pacing the floor at night wondering if his son’s supervisor was making sure all safety procedures were being followed. “After all,” Battles says, “we’re all sons and daughters of somebody.”
If this is starting to sound like one of those Driver’s Ed videos where maimed survivors of a drunk driving wreck confront first offenders, maybe that’s not so bad. Human nature says everyone needs regular reminders.
That’s why, says Battles, Saulsbury starts every shift with what they call a “Safety Moment.” This moment usually covers a particular safety issue but it also has the effect of putting the concept of safety at the front of each employee’s mind.
There is also a company-wide meeting where members of management, from the CEO down to project managers, discuss any and all safety issues from the previous week. “That shows ownership of the safety program and the value—safety is one of our core values—all the way up to the CEO and the shareholders, the Saulsburys.”
Well control training, as done by Steve Richert’s department at Houston-based WildWell, is not strictly considered safety training. But for Richert, teaching well hands to prevent those kinds of disasters is very much a safety procedure—and he wishes some companies took it more seriously.
Official requirements indicate the training should be done every two years. Richert considers two years to be too long for workers to remember the details or even the importance of the training. Studies have shown that it only takes school children a 3-month summer to forget large percentages of what they’ve spent nine months learning, so he sees a two-year gap as a real issue.
“The drilling rig companies and even the operators… even today still tend to, for well control training, depend upon that two-year cycle of training to train their guys up on well control. They come for a week, they learn their well control, and nothing much is done until the next two-year cycle is up.”
He cited studies showing that it takes just seven days for the average person to forget 90 percent of the information they’re given.
Richert related that the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), which accredits well control training companies such as WildWell, is looking for ways to expand training schedules.
WildWell’s own training methods include some innovative methods which, says Richert, “we think are getting better retention, at least anecdotally.”
Any official training can be seen as at least minimal progress. In the old days, Richert notes, a new guy received safety training—indeed, all training—from the other guys on the rig. His training was only as good as what he was told at that time. Any information gaps were thus perpetuated until, possibly, something terrible happened.
Even with advances, Richert acknowledges that “humans are human—they get lazy, they forget, they get into bad habits” which, in spite of the best efforts of trainers, can lead to costly and life-threatening accidents.
Some have said that safety training tends to get thrown under the bus, whether the oil and gas industry is in a boom or a bust cycle: During a boom, everyone is too busy to spend time on training; during a bust there’s no money to pay for safety training.
Richert disagrees with both sides of that reasoning. “If we can reduce the number of blowouts we’re having, and the number of fires and the resulting deaths from those fires, it helps us financially, it lowers our cost of doing business, it increases our image in society, and other factors. But we tend to chase the dollar bill and forget about the really important things.”
A while back Richert tested that theory in the real world, with surprising results.
“A drilling rig I worked on, we implemented what’s called a ‘five by five.’” This meant that, for every task, each worker would take five minutes to think of five things that might happen during that task, and how they would handle the situation if that did happen.
Company leadership balked because they were afraid this thought process would slow things down to unacceptable levels. Richert talked the leaders into letting him do a one-rig trial.
“We tried it on this drilling rig and our accident rate went to zero. We didn’t even have scratches or cut fingers.”
But here’s the bigger surprise. “Secondly—everybody’d said we’d lose money—instead, we became the fastest drilling rig in the field and this is why: Because our guys did not make mistakes. They thought through what they were doing, they did the task only once—they didn’t have to go back and re-do it because they messed it up.”
In a statement that is purposely ironic he says, “We became faster because we took time to slow down and be safe.”
Human Factors and the Safety Hierarchy
While most safety professionals concentrate on the training side, a father-daughter team in Houston feels there’s an additional piece to the safety puzzle, one which involves examining equipment and facilities to make sure their designs promote and enable safe operation.
Edward Ziegler grew up in Pennsylvania’s hoary oilfields, a few miles from Col. Edwin Drake’s legendary 1859 breakthrough well. Ziegler has worked for majors and is now both an operator in the eastern Permian and a safety trainer, consultant, and expert witness. He is a third generation oil man.
His daughter, Claudia Ziegler Acemyan, Ph.D., has taken the understanding of safety and human action to a academic level. Acemyan is a human factors and human-computer interaction (HCI) postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology at Rice University. She is also Senior Human Factors Engineer for KBRwyle at NASA.
Acemyan grew up watching her father’s expert witness work in cases where people were seriously injured or killed in industrial accidents. This often needless list of accidents made a strong impression on her.
In graduate school, her interest in safety took a new direction. “I had always been aware of ergonomics with my father’s work, and I got very interested in human factors—and, specifically, designing systems, whether it’s hardware, software, [or] a more complex system like a rig, where you design out all of the potential points where people could make errors or where incidents could occur.”
Upon starting her doctoral studies she learned that human factors experts have long known that improved design could reduce safety issues, but only recently has the oil and gas industry begun to be open to this idea.
Some experts also struggled because they themselves lacked oil and gas experience—and it was at that point that Acemyan approached her father to see if they could combine forces.
Human factors and other safety measures such as stop work authority began, she said, in the time period from just after World War II through the early 1950s. Perhaps the defining moment for the concept, Acemyan explains, was during World War II when a psychologist in the British Royal Air Force, Lt. Alphonse Chapanis, was assigned to find out why pilots and copilots of several U.S. aircraft, including the B-17 Bomber, frequently retracted the wheels instead of the flaps after landing.
Lt. Chapanis noticed that the controls for the two were side-by-side and were almost identical on the three airplanes. He further noted that these two controls were widely separated on C-47s, and pilots of those planes almost never mistook the two. While there was no time to completely redesign the cockpit during the war, the workaround was that a small rubber wheel was attached to the landing gear control and a triangle was attached to the flap switch—and the problem was solved.
And those little mnemonic devices are now the standard for airplane controls.*
Ziegler called attention to the safety hierarchy concept, a system for engineering as many problems as possible out of a system. “The bottom line is, if you have fewer hazards and risks in a system then you would need less training to deal with that system.” The top level, then, is to design hazards out. If that is not possible or feasible, the next level would be to guard against those hazards. The next level would be to train people to safely deal with the hazard.
The higher the level at which a problem can be dealt with, the safer the work site, because higher levels rely less on everyday human factors for success.
This is why Acemyan has concerns about the popular “stop work authority” option being relied on too heavily as a safety measure. She questions the likelihood of the average worker being trained and experienced enough to recognize a problem and, second, whether they’re comfortable that they won’t get in trouble if they do stop work.
For trainer and speaker Krisha Marker, February 2, 1975, is a day indelibly burned into her memory. To this day it affects almost everything she does, especially in the safety sector.
That day, nine members of her family died due to an H2S leak from an oil well 150 yards behind their ranch house outside Denver City, Texas. They were found in trucks and on the ground in the yard, desperate in their failed attempt to flee the danger.
According a story in the June, 1975, issue of Texas Monthly, H2S was actually being injected into that and other wells as an inexpensive EOR method. A tiny leak in a nipple emitted enough of the gas, on a rare windless West Texas day, to fill the low-lying yard and home.
Because of that, “The whole month of February every year I go from place to place to place speaking about when my family was killed in Denver City.”
It’s no wonder Marker is passionate about what she does the other 11 months of the year. “Safety is all about people—we want them all to go home at the end of the day,” she says. Taking a moment to ensure safety measures and gear are in place are worth the trouble. “Delay is better than disaster.”
Even though she and her husband do this as a business, her motivation is service, not dollars—a sentiment echoed by most safety professionals. “A real safety person is not in this to make money,” she says, adding that there would be more money to be made elsewhere in the oil field.
Marker is adamant that she will be a safety person right up to the end. “My only goal in life is, when I leave this world…the day I die, I’m gonna have a safety meeting at my funeral.”
Paul Wiseman is a freelance writer in Midland.