Global environmental challenges
What offshore miners know
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