Let me begin by clarifying the premise of my editorial article, safety does not stink. However, as a safety professional I can testify that for many this is the attitude towards safety directives in the field. Many operations personnel in our industry assume that safety people are either actively working against them, or at best, “just doing their jobs.” Candidly, we haven’t figured out how to get out of this two dimensional box and in many cases have built its structure ourselves. One of my goals is to clarify where we’re failing and strategies to leverage these failures into a new paradigm. One where our workers see safety leaders as coaches and partners, not police and tattletales.
As a fourth generation energy worker, I grew up with stories of valor and pickles my grandfathers and their coffee shop crews (as I call them) endured when they were still young enough to throw a chain. These guys were tough, and a lot of them got hurt. At the time, it was part of the culture. They grew up as farm kids working around machinery and driving grain or beet trucks at the age of seven. They breathed risk and chemicals, and pretty much every other particulate or gas that went airborne. Times were different then and a lot of our systems, data, and education have improved our workers longevity and quality of life, but the way these initiatives have been managed hasn’t always built trust with the people we ask to implement them.
In 2006 I was hired through a temp agency to work for Schlumberger (go big blue) as a wireline operator. Your first days in the oilfield are like drinking brine water from a firehose, but the most important lessons I remember were: never ask where the v-door is and never walk across location without something in your hand. Both of these lessons were courtesy of Ted Bearce, my lead operator. Ted drove me to my first drilling rig at 10pm for a long night of logging, thick coffee, and minimal conversation. He would kindly yell at me (as only old farmers can do) when I almost dropped pins or wrenches down the hole, or when I was dangling gingerly from the catwalk in the cellar trying to tie off a shive. That’s how I learned - nearly fail and almost have to fish the well or fall to your death, and then hear about it around the coffee pot for the next few months which was the most feared consequence of any hand. He taught me to watch everything he did, be quiet, and figure out how to do things myself without getting run off. It took a long time, but it was a glorious day for him when we could go through an entire job without saying a word.
Recounting my first years in the oilfield with colleagues draws a lot of knowing chuckles. Many had their own “Ted” who taught with nods and grunts and some hollering when they made a mistake (I had a few doozies myself). That is how we broke out. Ted cared about me, of that I’m sure, and this is how he trained people he wanted to succeed. Our safety person at the time was rarely seen and this was thought of as a good thing. When they would come the work would stop and we would retire to the coffee bench for a few hours until they left, with a list of chores and failures to correct. A few choice words and hours later, we would complete the tasks and three months later we would repeat the process. Very little discussion or coaching happened around the reasons for the changes, or how to proactively prevent failures in the future.
I hope to build a case for how this model brought us leaps and bounds from where we were, but won’t work if our goal is to develop a seamless, productive relationship between safety and operations. Safety can’t be a department or a person, or even a “core value” - it must be something more. How can we get there? By getting better data, and changing the standard role of the safety professional. I hope to clarify just how to accomplish this in my upcoming editorials.