Many Offshore Crews Feel Pressure to Compromise Safety Due to Business Stresses

[Quote]Most crewmembers on offshore support vessels believe that “commercial pressures” are having a negative impact on safety at sea, and many admit that they themselves would make compromises in an effort to satisfy bosses or customers.

That’s the conclusion of a global survey, released in June and commissioned by Helm Operations of Canada.

The report is titled “The Impact of Crew Engagement and Organizational Culture on Maritime Safety in the Workboats and OSV Sectors.” Its findings suggest that improvements are needed in safety cultures, casualty reporting, crew well-being and training.

“Worryingly, 50 percent found it difficult to say ‘no’ to a client or senior staff demanding actions that might compromise safety,” Helm Operations, a provider of management software, said in a news release.

“Our survey revealed that 78 percent of respondents believe commercial pressures could influence the safety of their working practices,” Rodger Banister, Helm’s marketing vice president, told Professional Mariner. What’s more, “as the industry works toward greater safety, we have anecdotal evidence — in the form of qualitative survey answers — pointing to geographical areas of concern,” he said.

The results were based on six months of research by Dr. Kate Pike and Emma Broadhurst of Southampton Solent University in the United Kingdom. The researchers examined Port State Control detention records from 27 maritime administrations in the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), covering the European coastal states and Canada, along with 19 Tokyo Memorandum of Understanding authorities in the Asia-Pacific. The United States isn’t a member of any of the Port State Control MOUs.

The study incorporated results from an online survey of 50 offshore companies, with 54 percent in Europe, 32 percent in North and South America, and the rest in Asia and Australia. A final report was scheduled for release before World Maritime Day on Sept. 26.

According to Banister, some respondents said safety practices in the U.S. and Europe are more satisfactory than elsewhere, especially when compared with West Africa and the Far East.

In the U.S., the safety culture in the Gulf of Mexico has improved since lessons were learned in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, industry members there say. Crewmembers today are encouraged to speak up about safety.

“At BP, every member of the work force has the authority, indeed the obligation, to stop unsafe work,” company spokesman Jason Ryan in Houston said in July. BP’s Bly Report, an internal look at the 2010 spill, offered 26 recommendations to make the firm’s drilling safer. Nearly all of those suggestions — addressing staff competence, contractor management, well control, well integrity testing, blowout preventers, cement testing, rig audits and emergency systems — were enacted by 2014.

BP’s Houston monitoring center, opened in 2011, supports its Gulf well crews with onshore specialists who relay safety concerns up the command chain. BP has a global agreement with Maersk Training, which is slated to open an instruction facility with simulators in Houston in 2016. BP workers in Houston and the U.K. train now on the company’s well-control and drilling simulators. In 2011, BP joined the Marine Well Containment Co., which includes 10 Gulf of Mexico oil-and-gas operators committed to halting offshore spills.

“In the offshore Gulf of Mexico, everyone’s given the authority to stop work, and while this is a great policy, it’s often misunderstood,” said David Barousse, general manager at Fleet Operators, a marine transportation company in Morgan City, La. “What it means is to stop an operation and re-evaluate the situation, not shut down the job and everyone go home for the day.”

Barousse said outdated attitudes are changing. “There’s always been pride in getting the job done,” he said. “There’s also the fear that a vessel could be fired from a project if a client’s told a task can’t be completed. Crews worry they’ll seem unmotivated if they say something’s unsafe.” Seamen grew up with these values.

“Fortunately in today’s Gulf, if a problem arises, we can usually discuss it with the client before it escalates,” Barousse said. “Today, with the government making Gulf leaseholders personally responsible, unsafe practices can get a company fired from a job. The old-school mentality is being purged. We tell our crews if an approach isn’t safe, step back and evaluate options. If they still feel the operation’s unsafe, management will back them 100 percent.”

Leading areas of workboat deficiencies are certification, documentation, fire safety and navigational safety, and 34 percent of respondents said that their companies need more operational and technical training.

The Helm study’s global findings are troubling. “But in today’s Gulf of Mexico, if an operation were called off because of safety, I doubt there would be any serious repercussions from the client,” Barousse said.[/quote]

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This is an improvement, but there is still a major unsolved problem. That is the difficulty of finding one person who is familiar with all the risk factors and has the ability and authority to call a halt.

Look at the major risk factors at Macondo: using foamed cement with oil -based mud. Using surplus tubulars for the production casing. Using a tapered long string with a crossover of unknown characteristics. A circulating system that delivered misleading flow out information to the crew. And on and on. Multifactor accidents are the new normal.


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I have written a book about accidents to offshore ships and rigs as a sort of parting shot after writing safety cases for 20 years, and I have considered the “stop work authority” at some length, but maybe these words from one of the opening chapters might be particularly applicable:

"In the end it is down to the person in charge to make sure that their vessel, is seaworthy, and capable of withstanding any weather to which it may be subjected. They have to make sure it remains stable, and try to ensure that the doors remain closed. And in the end it is important that emergency procedures are realistic and that the evacuation means are viable.

In a world where the actual competence of many of those in charge of marine objects might be questioned, is this too much to ask of that person, whether they be the Captain or the Offshore Installation Manager, or in some cases, still the Senior Toolpusher? I am afraid that this is a theme we are going to return to again and again, as those investigating the accidents which are described here ask for greater competence amongst those on the floating and jacked up vessels and rigs, and a higher level of responsibility amongst the management of these craft.

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Well, over the past 40 years, between work as a sailing Marine Engineer for 10 years, as a Class Surveyor for another 10 of them and 20 as a Loss Adjuster, I find that most serious accidents are multifactor. Not sure if that is the “new normal”, just that now, with more complex systems, the number of factors has increased.


I think you are absolutely right, which is why it should never be the poor guy on the deck or the drill floor sticking his finger up in the air and telling everyone to stop. It’s down to the managers and the VPs in their offices in Houston, and London and Aberdeen to do that or, caught in the middle, the captains and the OIMs, if they have confidence in their own authority.

Love your photos by the way.


cmakin said:

Well, over the past 40 years, between work as a sailing Marine Engineer for 10 years, as a Class Surveyor for another 10 of them and 20 as a Loss Adjuster, I find that most serious accidents are multifactor. Not sure if that is the “new normal”, just that now, with more complex systems, the number of factors has increased.

You’re right, my statement was too sweeping. On further reflection, I think that what is new is the distribution of the contributing factors. In the “old days” the contributing factors were things close to the event chain or at least within one control element: one ship, one facility, one company and so forth. With the current fad for decentralized organizations and outsourcing, the factors are separated by organizational and geographic boundaries. There were nine different corporations on the Deepwater Horizon that had a hand in the blowout. How is somebody in one of those stovepipes suppose to recognize their entering a zone of unacceptable risk?



Yes, I think it just might be. Of all the people onboard the Captain is under the most commercial pressure. We’ve all been pushed out of the shipyard early, had to put sick and injured crew on crew change helos when medevac’s were cancelled, talked into waiting just a bit longer with a hurricane approaching, let the client’s people blow off a drill, and on and on. The message from town is crystal clear on no downtime and making the client happy. This will not stop until Vessel and Rig Managers start backing up their Captains, especially in this age of blame culture.

I absolutely appreciate your comment, but there is no getting away from it, ship captains and others in charge of offshore objects are faced with an onerous responsibility. It is their job to keep their guys alive regardless of the pressures from the onshore management. One of the changes which has taken place is the improvement in communications, and this has resulted in pretty constant interaction between the person in charge at sea and the management back in the office. In the various accidents I have written about the content of these discussions has remained uninvestigated, but I think it probable that often people with no suitable qualifications or expertise are telling the man in the hot seat what he should do. And I can’t help thinking that the promoters of the “stop work authority” have never envisaged that it might be the captain stopping the job.

You nailed it there. The problem is double on OSVs and MODU’s where you have a Company Man to deal with.

These interactions need to be investigated post-casualty. One avenue I’ve only used once and should more often is the DPA. Fortunately the DPA in that case was a former Master and the problem was solved instantly. Do that too many times too many times though and you’ll be collecting unemployment.

I’ve seen officers demoted or let go for calling Stop-Work on legitimate issues. Overall it’s a bunch of BS used to satisfy tree huggers and government.

There’s a interesting thread on this topic this month in the Naut Institute group on LinkedIn. The OP asks “Should Controlling or Coercive behaviour towards Masters and their representatives be viewed as an offence in Maritime Law?”

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The entire concept of the ship and the master as a separate entity as thought of today is obsolete. What confuses people is the fact that the ship is separate physical object. That fact is of no real importance given the reality of modern communications The fact of the matter is the real power lies with people ashore.

If the owners insist on having the ship enter port during adverse weather (for example) whomever makes that decision should be responsible. If there is an incident, given VDRs and so forth, the matter of determining fault, be it the assist tugs, the pilot, or a problem with the vessel, it can be determined the same as any other incident with fault divvied up as appropriate.

Masters hoping to retain real authority are fighting a losing battle.

I quote a statement from the UK MAIB made in the report on the Clipper Point accident in 2011.

“While the master’s responsibility for the safety of the vessel, his passengers and crew is absolute, he can not operate alone. Vessel operators and port authorities have similar, if less clearly defined, responsibilities for equipping the master with the tools, rules and infrastructure that are needed for him to be able to operate safely.”

A pretty well balanced statement I think which needs to be understood by the guys in the office.