Human Factors in the Oil and Gas Industry

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Gareth Lock

This is the first in a series of articles written for Oil and Gas IQ highlighting the importance of Human Factors or Non-Technical Skills in the Oil and Gas sector and why they should be at the centre of improving productivity & personal performance which should lead to an improvement in both personal and process safety.

Many people believe that human factors is just about ergonomics, but it is much wider than that. It is "concerned with optimising the relationship between people and their activities, by the systematic application of human sciences, integrated within the framework of systems engineering."[1]

Over the years, technical solutions to problems have been developed and incorporated and they are no longer the key focal point when it comes to recommendations following an adverse event. Instead, it is the human in the system that is being looked at as a means of improving performance and safety.

This system extends all the way from the roustabout or roughneck on the rig or platform, through the supervisory chain to the senior executives within an organisation or regulatory body. It is a system that involves many people. People who make decisions based on skills, experience and situational awareness, who have to communicate clearly within and outside their teams, who are members of teams and lead, follow or most likely both, and who are all impacted by stress and fatigue. People who, given the number of moving parts within this system, are not aware of the complex and complicated, dependent and interdependent interactions.

But, they are also normal human beings. Who make errors. Who drift from a baseline of ‘normality’ or compliance. Drift that is especially prevalent when strong leadership is lacking, leadership that is required to understand why the drift is occurring, and leadership which is failing to bring the team back to the norm and inform the higher management that things need to change one way or another. Telling the operator to comply won’t necessarily solve the underlying problem. There is a need to understand why there isn’t compliance.

Given the readership of Oil and Gas IQ, the above comments might appear to be ‘common sense’, especially those familiar with the work of Flin, O’Connor and Crichton. However, if there is one thing that the community knows, especially those operating at the sharp end, sometimes there appears to be a distinct lack of common sense and incidents occur as a consequence.

Fortunately, the number of incidents is statically very low considering the potentially high tempo operations which take place in high risk environments – this perception of ‘safety’ introduces two significant challenges to the industry:

The lack of adverse events impacts the behaviours of individuals at both management and front-line levels changing risk perception at both ‘personal safety’ and ‘process safety’ levels. Whilst process safety is considered to be a greater concern due to the potential catastrophic consequences for both human and corporation, it is likely to be an abstract concept for most front-line operators given the vast number of potential factors at play, many of which are outside their knowledge or control. This means that the situational awareness of those involved in operations has to be improved, so that anticipation of ‘what if’ becomes the norm not the exception.

The second part is that because the industry could be considered to be statistically ‘safe’[2] although any loss of life is not acceptable, there is limited evidence to show that an intervention has worked – was the improvement in productivity or reduction in incidents down to background noise in the ‘system’ or was it directly down to that intervention. Given the current economic climate, this is very important when justifying to the financial department why the intervention is needed or was made.

The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) recognised the need to improve the knowledge and skills relating to human performance under the banner of Well Operations Crew Resource Management (WOCRM), taking lessons learned from aviation and other sectors and packaging them in a manner suitable for supervisors and crews, both onshore and offshore; OGP Doc 501[3] and IOGP Doc 502[4]. This syllabus focuses on six key themes:

  • Improving situational awareness and identifying why we do not see/hear everything that is in front of us.
  • Understanding the human decision making processes, especially how and why we make good (and bad) decisions.
  • What the barriers and enablers for good communications are, thereby ensuring that messages are clearly understood and why, in many cases, they are not.
  • Understanding key skills for effective leadership and followership, identifying that ‘one size does not fit all’ and is very much task and team dependent.
  • Showing how teams can be developed, identifying the steps to becoming a high performing team and the barriers which need to be overcome to achieve that.
  • Finally, how all of the above skills can be adversely impacted at both a team and an individual level by stress and fatigue.

These skills will be covered over the coming months with specific examples of how teams and individuals can develop by understanding those human factors; human factors which in effect put paid to the oft heard words ‘he did that because he was stupid/lazy/prone to breaking the rules…’ and identify the reasons why people behave in the manner they do so that we can fix the system accordingly. However, understanding and changing behaviours does not happen overnight and requires significant commitment, and potentially external support because those inside the system are both part of the solution but also part of the problem.

I will conclude with a link to a video clip I use in WOCRM training to show just how hard it is to unlearn behaviours and why just telling someone to do something different won’t necessarily help unless they are totally committed themselves and have some feedback mechanism. Please bear this clip in mind the next time someone doesn’t do what you have asked them to do if it is contrary to their previous or default behaviours...

[1]Civil Aviation Authority CAP 719




About the Author

Gareth Lock is a retired senior officer in the RAF where he operated, instructed and supervised on tactical and strategic missions in the C-130K Hercules.

During his time in the RAF he started a PhD examining the role of Human Factors in SCUBA diving which has technical, supervisory, organisational and cultural issues at its core. Since October 2014 Gareth has been delivering Well Operations Crew Resource Management (WOCRM) training and coaching in the Middle East for a major client working through Critical Team Performance, a bespoke consultancy who were contracted by the IOGP's Wells Expert Committee's Human Factors Task Force to prepare an industry-changing recommended practice document that would set a standard for the implementation of Crew Resource Management (aka Non-Technical Skills) in Well Operations Teams.

This programme has identified a number of significant challenges in delivering Western-based training into non-Western cultures and thus required considerable skill to get to the core problems about the barriers to improved performance and consequently improved safety.

Read more of Gareth's Oil & Gas IQ articles here