By Harold Robinson, Operations Management Consultant

“Unfortunately, it seems many companies, military organisations and government agencies would agree on one more commandment, the Eleventh Commandment of Damage Control: Conceal all problems that might bring on trouble for the organisation. It’s easy to rationalise: it was a freak occurrence but we immediately fixed any problems; people should leave us alone about it because nothing like this will ever happen again, to us or anyone else.”
James R Chiles, from his book “Inviting Disaster”

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Deepwater Horizon has rightly dominated the news for more than a month now.

Oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico

Burning off oil in the Gulf of Mexico

Wikipedia reveals some preliminary findings from BP’s internal investigation released by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on May 25. The findings indicated several serious warning signs in the hours just prior to the explosion.

For example, the blowout preventer failed to fully engage. A number of significant problems have been identified with the blowout preventer:

  • There was a leak in the hydraulic system that provides power to the shear rams.
  • The underwater control panel had been disconnected from the bore ram, and instead connected to a test hydraulic ram.
  • The blowout preventer schematic drawings, provided by Transocean to BP, do not correspond to the structure that is on the ocean bottom.
  • The shear rams are not designed to function on the joints where the drill pipes are screwed together.
  • Part of the blowout preventer control unit is a back-up dead man’s switch. It has two control pods - the one that has been inspected so far had a dead battery.

There had been numerous previous spills and fires on the Deepwater Horizon, which had been issued citations by the Coast Guard 18 times between 2000 and 2010. The previous fires were not considered unusual for a Gulf platform and have not been connected to the April 2010 explosion and spill. The Deepwater Horizon did, however, have other serious incidents including a 2008 incident where 77 people were evacuated from the platform after it listed over and began to sink after a section of pipe was accidentally removed from the platform's ballast system.

In the latest edition of The Globalist, Stephan Richter points out that in its advertising campaign following the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP started the text of its full-page print advertisements with a shockingly honest statement:

“Since (sic!) the tragic accident on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig first occurred, we have been committed to doing everything

Truer words have rarely been spoken - and it is hard to recall a more classic case of a very public form of self-indictment.

In other words, until the accident occurred, we were content to do drilling in a happy-go-lucky mode. We didn’t employ safety and backup
procedures that are mandatory in similar deepwater situations in, say, Norway. Instead, we relied on a much cheaper technique - constantly
pushing the envelope with the regulators.

As expected, the extent of the disaster tends to be played down, and talk of “isolated incident” and “freak accident” prevail. But it was inevitable that the information about shortcuts being part of the operation would emerge. This leads one to wonder why these discrepancies were not acted on before. Perhaps it was as a result of an attempt at damage control; “conceal all problems that might bring on trouble for the organisation”.

Now I am not advocating that every incident should be publicised in the media. But if the Eleventh Commandment that Chiles refers to above is being applied, learning from mistakes within the company is not likely to take place. Information about the “near-misses” and the subsequent learning should be communicated and used to modify work methods. Then, to quote James Chiles again:

“Armed with such information and a healthy touch of fear, operators and pilots and technicians and managers can learn the way of the machine”. If we learn one thing from this incident, maybe it should be about how we arm everybody with the right information.