June marks an anniversary no one wants to celebrate – It has been one year since oil plummeted from about $106 a WTI barrel to where it is today, hovering just under $60. No one knows where prices go from here, but if this is the new normal, it is time to take a hard look at what that does to safety in the oil and gas industry.
The news is good and bad. The bad is that companies are cutting staff and resources and safety departments have not been spared the ax. Individual businesses are dealing with it differently, but everyone is having to do more with less.
Safety managers also say one of their biggest concerns is over added stress on the job. It is natural for workers to worry whenever there are slowdowns and layoffs. The problem is that translates into distraction, loss of focus and mistakes in the field. We know from a AAA study that distracted driving causes about 60% of teen accidents. What happens when a distracted worker picks up a welding torch or a saw?
The very good news is we don’t have clear evidence that safety is being compromised. You have to be careful about not drawing conclusions, since incident reporting lags events, but when you talk to safety managers, they are not sounding the alarm.
Part of the reason may be that safety tools are in place and working. Another possible reason may be that companies were disciplined about not cutting their safety departments too deeply. There is also the possibility that companies are focusing on core safety programs that are effective and making their cuts in processes that were not all that successful to begin with.
However, one of the key reasons may be that, even though companies have cut workers, they have kept the best employees on the job. One of the fundamentals of safety is that inexperienced workers are at higher risk of incident. A study of steel mills a hundred years ago, showed that more than 70% of incidents involved workers with less than a year’s experience. The learning curve and the churn of new workers have long been recognized as risk factors. Today, we recognize that concern through programs like Short Service Employee policies.
So when companies keep their most experienced workers and stop hiring new workers, they eliminate one of the key factors for incidents. Add to that a reduction is actual hours worked and incident rates may actually go down for a short time.
But no one believes that is a long-term solution or the preferred state in the oil patch. In future blogs I will look at what the government is doing on enforcement during this downturn and what the future may look like from a safety standpoint.