Skills and Knowledge Under SEMS 2: A Tough Issue for Operators & Contractors

Last week we started a series of blog posts looking at the SEMS requirement for Operators to verify that Contractor personnel have the skills, knowledge and experience to perform their jobs safely and effectively.  Today we continue that series by focusing on the unique challenges this creates for the industry.

The Problem for Operators

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In the old days, oil companies hired Contractors for their ability to do the job.  It was up to the Contractor to figure out what their employees needed to know in order to do the job right.  The proof was in performance; it was right or it wasn’t.  True, you can only judge performance after the fact, so everything was viewed through the rear view mirror.   But it was a pretty simple system to manage; “You mess up, your fired.”

SEMS changed that.  Now, Operators need to look beyond the performance of the companies they bring in on a project and determine whether each worker has the skills and knowledge to do the job before the job starts.  In fact, in one guidance document, BSEE indicates that Operators need to verify the skills and knowledge of each and every contractor employee who is involved in the project.   Wow!  That’s like saying you need to make sure the newspaper delivery boy knows how to ride a bike before you subscribe to the paper.

First, it is an overwhelming task given the thousands of contractor personnel involved in the industry.   Second, the truth is the Operators don’t really know all that much about many of the jobs that are done offshore.   If they wanted to be in the welding business, they wouldn’t need to hire welders.

The Problem for Contractors

The challenge for Contractors is a complex one.   First we need to start with an understanding that, statistically, the offshore world is a pretty safe place to work.   According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, the offshore injury and illness rate was 0.8 incidents per 100 full-time workers, compared to a rate of 5.0 for the transportation sector and 4.4 for manufacturing.   A lot of that success is because offshore workers are pretty good at what they do.   So the issue is not so much competence, as how we measure competence.  That is where Contractors are having trouble.

For starters, we don’t even have common job titles and descriptions offshore, much less standardized skills and knowledge requirements.   Two completely different jobs may have the same title (try figuring out whether a mechanic  does maintenance or installation of equipment) and two different titles may describe the same job (Does a Field Service Specialist need to know more than a Field Service Technician?).   To give one specific example, the master of a liftboat and the master of an OSV are both captains, but their daily jobs are very different.

The other problem is that, while we may believe our crews are, we don’t have objective criteria to prove it.   If you ask the owner of a small Contractor company how he knows he has the right people on the job, the answer will probably be “because I have been doing this for 25 years.”

Unfortunately SEMS doesn’t care if we have really good intuition that workers are skilled. Verifying skills and knowledge under SEMS involves having a process that backs up “having a good gut feeling that kid will make a good wireline operator” with objective, documented and auditable proof.

That is the challenge that will define this issue for the next year or two.  In a future blog post, we will look at how one industry successfully addressed that problem and the lessons that may hold for the offshore world.

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