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2 Decades, 2 Stories about Rig Safety

Monday, 16 Sep 2013

In 2011, industry was firing up to get back to work after the recession.  It was the kind of upswing that – back in the 90s – set nerves on edge in safety departments.


[Published in The Roughneck]   In 2002, CAODC’s membership magazine, The OilDriller, published a safety article. 

“Workplace Safety Pays” was a window to an industry anxious about its safety performance.

The article began: “Industry initiatives beginning in training rooms have significantly reduced the incidence of workplace accidents.  However” –and here the tone turned ominous – “with the industry operating on all cylinders, the injury rate is once again on the rise."

A particular pain point for rig contractors was how their safety performance struggled against the uneven waves of oil and gas activity. The rise and fall in activity brought a rise and fall in safety stats. At the onset of increasing activity, a disproportionate number of employees were impacted by jobsite injuries.

This was probably all the more frustrating because, through the 1990s, CAODC members did achieve some nominal safety successes. But for the most part, safety statistics fluctuated widely. And the industry was well aware that its recent history waffled between years with a poor safety record and years with a worse safety record.  

It’s no wonder, then, at the turn of the century, rig contractors and the members of CAODC safety committees worried about the ramp-ups that came with activity booms. 

Fast Forward to Today

It’s ironic that the article was published in 2002. Industry was on the cusp of turning a corner.  In the coming decade, rig contractors began to maintain consistency in driving down Total Recordable Incident Frequency (TRIF).  

Over the following ten years, the data points no longer wildly peaked and dropped. Rigs were attaining steady improvement on the safety front. But there’s a bigger story. It’s the story of how industry managed this achievement even as it scrambled to adjust to cyclical highs and low. 

The ten years between 2002 and 2012 were just as cyclical as the ten previous years. Rigs either worked full throttle or idled in yards. The price of oil climbed to unimaginable heights; the price of natural gas soared. And then both commodities collapsed. The Canadian rig fleet attained record well counts in 2005 and 2006. The fleet also struggled through its bleakest years since the despair of the early 1980s. 

But industry had gained traction on the safety front. They strove for improvement in safety and saw results.

The Attitude that Changed Data Points

A number of factors were at work behind the data points.  For one thing, rig crews were seeing technical advances at the jobsite.  With more automation on the rig, the crew was less exposed to potential hazards.

Secondly, industry became increasingly standardized in terms of jobsite training. Drilling rig contractors worked with provincial governments to develop an apprenticeship program. Service rig contractors developed a competency-based training program. Over the course of the decade, it became the norm for employers to put training guidelines in place. 

But more than anything, the TRIF graph reflects a cultural shift. Industry began to recognize that safety policy on the books didn’t always translate to the jobsite. They recognized where safety looked like ‘just talk’ from the field employee’s perspective. They began to get serious about implementing these policies at the jobsite. Safety-positive attitudes were taking hold at all levels in the industry. At the 2012 CAODC Safety Awards Banquets, CAODC shared some good news with the audience of drillers and rig managers:

In 2011, industry was firing up to get back to work after the recession. It was the kind of upswing that – back in the 90s – set nerves on edge in safety departments. With utilization strengthening, experienced employees were being moved into new roles, and green hands were in unfamiliar environments. Everyone was on a learning curve. But, the rigs managed these challenges. They hired, they promoted, they trained and they drilled.

And they held TRIF steady.

It is exactly the message that the industry of 2002 had imagined they might one day hear.

Now that the industry has severed the correlation between increased activity and increased TRIF, the patch can focus on the next important goal: an ever lower TRIF.

To see the video messages from the 2012 and 2013 CAODC Safety Award banquets, visit TheCAODC on YouTube.