Occupational Safety Steps into the Spotlight in Deepwater Horizon

Author: Jared Smith, Co-Founder

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The latest Hollywood blockbuster Deepwater Horizon has hit theaters across the nation, marking one of the first major films to draw America’s attention to occupational safety and the industrial world’s environmental risks. In the midst of all the hype surrounding the premiere, the film provides a good forum to talk through how we can mitigate those risks.

Millions of Americans swipe their credit cards at gas stations every day without a single notion of how that gas got there. However, Deepwater Horizon demystifies the physical and environmental challenges real-life oil rig workers face day in and day out in order to bring that gas to the pumps at our stations, putting into perspective just how much we take their work for granted.

But beyond the exhaustion and treacherous waters, oil rig workers are also shown facing major emotional pull due to being away from their families for 21 days on end, humanizing the aftermath of one of the world's biggest man-made disasters that tragically resulted in the loss of 11 lives.

Aboard Deepwater Horizon on that historic day six years ago were more than just BP employees – contractors and those contractors’ subcontractors were there too. In fact, more than 90 percent of oil and gas workers in the field today are contractors.

The film simplified the reasons for the incident, which is a complicated and layered issue, in order to fit into the typical Hollywood mold of "hero vs. villain." The real-life Macondo incident – moreso than the movie – emphasized a growing risk in the world that’s been trending for 100 years and not stopping any time soon: businesses are moving more and more toward a contractor model and outsourcing, not necessarily off-shoring.

The fact is, risk is naturally introduced when people outside of the company are hired. Although utilizing contractors makes great business sense, since it allows for deeper specialization, higher quality and reduced costs, culture simply cannot be controlled from one company-level to another. Failure to properly vet and prequalify contractors before hiring could make the difference when it comes to preventing catastrophic incidents.

Ever since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, companies have put a lot of money into thinking how they can vet and manage suppliers better. This is a common phenomenon when major accidents occur. 

Although contractor vetting is not yet a standardized process, it’s rapidly moving in that direction. Roughly 20 percent of suppliers are vetted for multinational industrial companies, and for those employers that are left, we suggest the following best practices: 

  • A rigorous pre-qualification before contractors can come onsite
  • Ongoing monitoring of potential changing requirements and contractors’ good standings
  • An annual update of accident records

Traditionally, all of this data has been recorded in mounds of spreadsheets by companies’ HR departments, but new technology solutions are exponentially enhancing the process to be systemized across an organization by providing a single source and location for vetting, onboarding and managing contractors.

We cannot speculate what exactly could have been done differently on board Deepwater Horizon, due to the multitude of factors that led to the incident’s occurrence, however, clearer procedural matters and safety precautions could have undoubtedly prevented several of the missteps. 

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