Policy: May 2012
Simon Feary looks at why it took disaster for BP to start learning from other industries
Last month marked the second anniversary of the BP oil disaster at Deepwater Horizon. This anniversary was marked by a protest from some shareholders during the company’s annual meeting. The group’s management has understandably tried to demonstrate how far it has moved on during the last two years – and not just by firing those deemed culpable. It is a good time to reflect on the lessons learned, from a quality perspective.
For those who need reminding, on 20 April 2010, an explosion on board the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon caused the deaths of 11 oil workers and triggered an environmental crisis on the beaches around the Gulf of Mexico. The US justice department has not yet apportioned exact blame for the events.
The furore at the annual meeting was inspired by 10% of BP investors who voted against a £4m pay package secured by the chief executive, Bob Dudley, and directors were attacked for continuing safety lapses and accused of painting a too ‘rosy’ picture of the US cleanup.
Dudley, who replaced Tony Hayward after the accident, thanked shareholders for ‘sticking with’ BP and admitted the business had come through a ‘major crisis’. He also said that the group was back on track thanks to the hard work of its staff and a new raft of safety measures.
While the immediate PR strategy on that fateful day was widely acknowledged as another disaster for BP, the company appears to have learned from its mistakes. The changes that have been made represent at least a degree of positive news for an industry that desperately needs some if public perception is to change.
An interesting piece recently appeared in the Guardian by the energy editor, Terry Macalister, highlighting the lengths that BP is going to, beyond the £14bn it has paid in costs and compensation since the accident. The measures it has enlisted follow concepts familiar to the quality professional.
Macalister says: ‘BP has brought in astronauts from Nasa, nuclear physicists and a host of other non-oil men and women in an attempt to learn about safety in other industries. The company has also set up a safety and organisational risk team that reports directly to the group chief executive and a host of new operational measures such as ensuring that double shear rams are used on their blowout preventers.’
These are sensible measures that represent examples of benchmarking for safety, best practice and knowledge sharing with other industries. Nasa has taken great interest in the risk and safety processes at BP since Deepwater Horizon.
The Nasa Goddard Library contains an interesting online seminar from risk management expert and Nasa consultant Beverly Sauer,who talks about engineering safety and risk communication lessons following Deepwater Horizon. No doubt those Nasa engineers who attended the presentation were already well-versed in improvement for these areas – Nasa has learnt its fair share of lessons over the years, such as the failures leading to the tragic launch of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Speaking of communication, when one shareholder and former BP employee claimed that recent North Sea statistics showed the company was spilling more oil than any other, Dudley tried to soften any such blow by admitting that the company is on a ‘journey’ of endless improvement. His candid approach is well-placed, given the potentially dangerous and unpredictable nature of oil exploration and production. It also marks a stark contrast to BP’s earlier PR strategy, which was incredibly blinkered.
Of course, the British and American authorities have also tightened up their regulatory systems in the last two years, but the evidence from BP today demonstrates a serious undertaking from the company to make sure Deepwater Horizon is never repeated.
Simon Feary is CQI CEO. Read his weekly updates on the CQI blog at blog.thecqi.org