Brian Salerno

"Safety is best thought of as always being at risk"

Is safety at risk? We've asked Brian Salerno, Direktør Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), USA.

Safety is best thought of as always being at risk, especially in inherently dangerous industries such as the energy sector where complacency can result in costly and life-threatening incidents.

To some extent, the way people approach safety is influenced by the prevailing economic conditions. However, safety mustn’t be timed to the market – it needs to be a consistent priority, regardless of the economic pressures.

Taking a longer view, I believe the greatest threat to worker safety is cultural, even though regulatory regimes and industry standards are important components.

Ultimately, however, the companies and their employees who must make countless operational decisions on a daily basis will determine the overall safety of any given activity.

What’s the basis for your conclusion?

To be truthful, a short-term linkage between oil prices and safety is not easy to track because safety incidents are often lagging indicators.

Moreover, changes have occurred in industry activity levels, while new safety regulations have paralleled the recent economic downturn.

However, most people involved with the industry acknowledge that an inherent relationship exists between safety and the price of oil.

Those of us who have interacted with the offshore industry for many years know that both positive and negative financial pressures can influence a company’s approach to its safety responsibilities.

Fortunately, there are many in the industry who strive to maintain their focus on safety as the top priority, regardless of oil prices.

I don’t believe public demand for safe and environmentally sound operations will diminish. Quite the opposite is true. In the USA and elsewhere, public opinion has reflected increased concern about these issues.

The Deepwater Horizon tragedy was a watershed moment that underscored the potential risks and signalled the need to do better.

As the industry seeks to move into frontier areas, such as ultra-deepwater and high pressure/high temperature (HPHT) wells, there is no substitute for concurrently updating and improving the approach to safety. 

"Fortunately, there are many in the industry who strive to maintain their focus on safety as the top priority, regardless of oil prices."

What’s needed to maintain and improve the level of safety in the petroleum sector?

The eventual resurgence of energy prices will bring renewed interest in offshore oil and gas development. Although this will be welcome news for the industry, it is something which will have to be managed carefully from a safety standpoint.

We will probably see an influx of new workers, many of whom will require training. Meanwhile, a lot of experienced industry personnel may have permanently exited. The potential experience deficit is something that bears our collective attention.

As new capabilities are being developed, a growing need exists for better system safety awareness across the board. We need to do a much better job of sharing safety-related data, for instance.

Inspections and enforcement will always be vital components in an offshore regulator’s toolbox. But an organisational culture which places a high value on safe operations is critical.

Changing a culture requires patience, but can be done with the aid of continual efforts.