What offshore miners know

May 11, 2010


Dr. Beverly A. Sauer is a professor of management communication at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. Any views expressed here are her own.

Despite massive attention to environmental impact of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the death of 11 rig workers has not had the same impact as the tragic deaths of 29 coal miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

One article in The Washington Post described events at the moment of disaster, but there has been little tribute to the knowledge and experience these workers bring to the job of managing risk and preventing future disasters.

The Deepwater disaster bears surprising similarity to a mine disaster.

In the Sago disaster, methane accumulated in a sealed area of the mine. Seals failed, and workers were trapped when a methane explosion ripped through the mine’s primary escapeway.

In the Deepwater disaster, the rig’s blowout preventers (BOPs) failed, and a massive methane explosion ignited the fire that destroyed the rig and killed eleven workers. The explosion occurred during the rig’s transition to production—a particularly sensitive time in any mining system, particular when out-of-production reservoirs of methane sit idle prior to production.
Unlike the Upper Big Branch mine—with its transparent record of 1029 violations, Transocean celebrated its safety culture in a now-poignant hip-hop video published in summer 2009 urging rigworkers to keep their hands high—away from hazardous equipment.

In 2008, Transocean won the Minerals and Management Service (MMS) SAFE award for its perfect performance record. Post-modern cynicism about the company’s safety record might be easy in light of the MMS’s dual charge to insure safety and encourage oil production in the Outer Continental Shelf.

Coal mine production reminds us, however, that safety is often understood in sensory terms that may be invisible or inaudible to untrained eyes and ears.

Experienced mineworkers, for example, use their hands to sense vibrations that indicate changes in the system. They hear pops and hissing sounds that indicate the release of methane. Roof bolters place their hands on drilling equipment to sense the “feel” of the bolt as it moves through different levels of mud and strata. If the bolt jumps unexpectedly, miners can lose fingers, arms, and hands. Transocean’s video is particularly effective in communicating this message.

Automated systems offer the promise of increased safety, efficiency, and control because they distance workers from the most dangerous processes of mining, but system designers may deliberately or inadvertently overlook opportunities for human intervention in controlling disaster.

In the Deepwater disaster, rig workers heard hissing and a bump when methane escaped from the deep sea well.  Coal miners are trained to listen to such sounds because they are reliable indicators of imminent danger. In becoming dependent on automated blowout preventers, designers did not provide opportunities for humans to intervene in the disaster.

Last week, a reporter asked me to comment on an engineer’s remark that rig workers were a tough crew—like the kids in high school you probably didn’t hang out with.

“Like the ones who could fix a car and take apart and re-assemble just about any piece of machinery?” I countered.

At NASA, engineers who can design complicated robotic systems have never held a wrench or wrestled with a faulty bolt—though hands-on knowledge was necessary to repair the Hubble telescope.

Human error and failure to anticipate the catastrophic impact of an offshore drilling accident have now precipitated a massive environmental and financial crisis in the Gulf.

In unpacking human agency for the events leading to the disaster, the reading public may see little distinction between the technical expertise required to cap the well and the drilling expertise required to handle the heavy equipment.

They may also fail to see that the rig’s safety record had little to do with the undersea potential of an engineering design disaster.

Ultimately, however, the on-site experience and drilling expertise that rig workers bring to their job is critical to the future design of sustainable energy production systems in a nation heavily dependent on both coal and oil. Like the precious oil leaking into the Gulf, we must learn to capture, integrate, communicate, and honor this knowledge in our quest for oil—as we honor the memory of the rig workers who died in the disaster.


Photo shows China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) oil rig in China’s Bohai Sea is seen in this October 17, 2002 file photo. REUTERS/China Newsphoto/Files


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So, this suggests that the workers should have been able to shut down a $0.5M/day rig upon hearing a thump and a hissing sound?
And if they did, and the disaster never happened, would they have been still working after having taken this responsibility?
Try telling **your** boss that you have just avaided a multi-billion dollar disaster by destroying his multi-million-dollar equipment.

Posted by ForeverSPb | Report as abusive

A very thought provoking piece. Finding a balance between human mastery and computing technology is a defining challenge of our generation. Too much reliance on technology and you dumb-down the species. Too little, and you miss the full benefits technology can bring.
I’m certain too that the environmental aspects of being in an enclosed mine, where sound and feel are significant, are vastly different from those of an outdoors at-sea area where a shake and a noise can be simply a gust of wind.

Still, the challenge is there. Waiting.

Posted by Watcher23 | Report as abusive

It really irks me that government has not taken the lead in providing quick action to remove crude oil from sea water to protect our coastal waters. We split the atom 65 years ago but we can’t remove oil from water??? As soon as that oil hit the surface, April 22nd, government ships should have been there to collect it on the spot. This was not a bad leak, we should be prepared to handle a leak ten and twenty fold this bad, government should take command and remove the oil and send it to a special refinery to separate out the water… then send the bill to the oil corp responsible.

Posted by risenstar | Report as abusive

I believe the author makes a couple basic errors that render her point about human intelligence vs. automated machinery completely unsupported. That is unfortunate, because her point IS supported by actual facts related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster that she ignores.

First, her errors: The blowout preventer (BOP) is a piece of equipment meant to stop the flow of oil. It had nothing to do with trapping methane bubbles. Secondly, this rig was not transitioning to production; it had just been drilled and its core cemented; it was transitioning to a sealed well, not production.

The author’s basic premise – that automated equipment was involved in or caused the Deepwater Horizon explosion and might have been prevented by greater human involvement – is completely wrong. This wasn’t a matter of stupid automated equipment missing signals smart humans would have caught. Rather, smart humans possibly made a mistake in the cementing or other process, resulting in methane coming into what was supposed to be a sealed drill shaft.

However, the ecological disaster we now face IS due to over-reliance on automated technology. The fact that an environmental disaster is occurring can be traced to the failure of the blowout preventer (but, again, the BOP failure came after, and did NOT cause, the explosion). But don’t blame the technology: additional technology exists for remote actuation of BOPs, technology that is required by Brazil and some governments involved in North Sea drilling regulation. Our government chose not to insist on back-up controls for the BOP. So we have no way to shutdown the well.

In short, the explosion was horrible, although not completely unpredictable (the US govt had warned BP/Transocean about the high methane levels in this field; warning possibly ignored). But it was not due to over reliance on automated equipment. The following eco-disaster was entirely predictable, and caused by political choices made by smart humans.

Posted by JohnMetz | Report as abusive

Actually, BP chose to clear the well before applying the final plug; sea water has half the density of the cementing mud, without the plug in place to stop the pressure from below, up came all that methane gas… it was big time human error to unbalance the well ahead of setting the plug…. and to do so after you’ve discovered you are dealing with 30,000 psi – and knowing that your blowout preventer is only rated at 15,000 psi – it almost appears like it was a deliberate accident; the FBI should be looking at this event and consider whether those eleven deaths should become manslaughter charges against BP and MMS.

If the oil corps want to continue to drill deepwater rigs in our waters, we should mandate blowout preventers that can handle the higher pressures.

Finally, our Coast Guard needs to be equipped with some huge sweepers and a fleet of big tankers that can respond to spills. Make dispersants illegal, they only magnify the damage. Let’s start doing the smart thing and go directly to the heart of leaks/spills and sweep the oil up into freighters and let’s build or equip a refinery to separate the sea water from the oil… leaving the oil in the water to kill marine life and then invade our shoreline is utterly stupid.

Posted by risenstar | Report as abusive

ForeverSPb: The crew could indeed have shut down the rig if they felt it was justified. If they shut down for safety with good reason (e.g. hearing a hiss, equipment recording pressure surge), no one will challenge them. The public perception that oil companies are cavalier about safety is dead wrong.

risenstar: Why do you believe the government could do a better job than BP? I hear this often. I don’t understand the reasoning. And how do you know for certain that BP made a human error? Is this an opinion? A fact? Hearsay? They deny it. What inside info do you have?

JohnMetz: Since 1947, and after about 60,000 offshore wells, there had been no serious blowouts in the US Gulf of Mexico. In hindsight we can now see that the risks are higher than was thought, but up to the day before the event, risks were in fact widely regarded as being low (review above stats). Companies are operating on the edge of science, and that entails risk. Can you be certain that equipment mandated in Brazil or the North Sea is risk free, and if not how much does it reduce risk? It’s certainly possible that a new and unforeseen situation could arise causing a Brazilian well to blow out. Also, your charge of sabotage is astonishing. What evidence do you have? What would the motive be?

Posted by swimmer | Report as abusive

The solution is to end the quest for deep water oil. We are a long ways from being able to control such a volatile environment. Just look at the inability to respond real time to such a disaster. With all of the money and all of the technology being thrown at the problem, we have been helpless to stop the leak.

This is a critical time in our nation. The technology is not ready to safely extract oil from deep water reservoirs. Do we continue to take huge environmental risks or do we take the necessary steps to convert to clean energy.

Posted by mattd | Report as abusive

JohnMetz: When you say “Our government chose not to insist on back-up controls for the BOP. So we have no way to shutdown the well.” I am fascinated just wondering how the US government could have been so lax. It is as if the government was run by Haliburton and an oil man for 8 years or more. And by the way, have you completely excluded BP from the list of actors who could have been responsible for selecting the pressure rating of the BOPs they paid for and had installed?

Swimmer: When you say “It’s certainly possible that a new and unforeseen situation could arise causing a Brazilian well to blow out.” I am reminded of that delightful George W Bush joke about the Brazillian soldiers. How many??!

Posted by wombatmarsupial | Report as abusive