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Understanding roles

A purposeful commitment turned employer-employee relations in Norway’s petroleum industry from conflict to cooperation. But all sides must accept a responsibility if this success is to continue.

The “tripartite” collaboration established between companies, unions and government in the Norwegian oil and gas sector has not just happened, emphasises PSA director general Magne Ognedal.

“Viewed in a historical perspective, relations have moved from a compulsory exercise full of antagonism to a strategic
partnership in several important areas,” he notes.

“But we’re now seeing a tendency to sow doubts about the willingness of all the parties to participate in genuine and binding cooperation.

“This needs to be taken seriously. As the head of the PSA and chair of the Safety Forum, I’ll be encouraging critical reviews of our tripartite arenas to ensure a shared understanding of roles and rules.”

Union-management collaboration and employee codetermination have long traditions in Norwegian working life, and are also enshrined in offi cial regulations and administrative practice.

This was part of the reality which confronted the international oil industry when it arrived in Norway 40-50 years ago.

The freedom to unionise and to collaborate with employers, both locally and nationally, were regarded as natural rights for
Norwegian workers.

Forming part of the basis for the country’s new petroleum sector, their roots go back to the first basic agreement between national employer and union organisations in the 1930s.

They had been further developed through research-based projects pursued jointly by the two sides of industry during the 1960s.

The Norwegian regulations developed to govern the oil and gas business have accordingly built on these conditions and experiences.

Frameworks and regulations for collaboration and codetermination may have been established, but it is well known that good intentions do not necessarily mean positive practice.

The local and national tripartite collaboration developed in the petroleum industry has in many respects imposed itself over time.

In an international industry with big investment, substantial risk and many operational and technological challenges, conflicts of interest between those involved can obviously be substantial.

That was certainly the case during the first 20 years of petroleum operations in Norway, which were characterised by big clashes and great antagonism between the various sides.

This history of conflict and rising risk was part of the backdrop for various government initiatives to secure the necessary risk management, continuous improvement and codetermination.

Regulators recognised at an early stage that any reduction in industry risk had to be entrenched in robust regulations, a supervisory regime with responsible players – and collaboration.

“Developments in Norway’s oil industry have naturally helped to enhance awareness of this on all sides,”  emphasises Mr Ognedal.

He points to the 1980 Alexander L Kielland disaster with its 123 fatalities, and a number of other accidents related to helicopters and technical operations in the industry.

“For me personally, as a professional and as a manager, the Kielland disaster was a momentous experience,” says Mr
Ognedal, who was then safety head at the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate.

“So many people couldn’t die without it having consequences for the development of operating parameters and methods for managing risk in our petroleum sector.”

As early as 1986, in connection with a major reform of Norway’s offshore regulatory regime, an external reference group for regulations (ERR) was established as a collaboration arena.

“This represented a natural move when we were developing the new safety rules, which clarified the division of responsibility between the players,” Mr Ognedal recalls.

The ERR marked in many respects the start to what was to become a formalised tripartite collaboration. It was succeeded in 2004 by the Regulatory Forum.

This body ensures that companies and union contribute to the PSA’s important work of developing regulations and other
parameters for the petroleum sector.

“Before 2000, we found ourselves all too often playing the role of mediator and conflict-solver between employer and employee organisations,” Mr Ognedal says.

A shared recognition that something needed to be done and extra pressure from the unions prompted the creation of the Safety Forum in 2001 to revitalise the tripartite collaboration.

Members of these two fora are experienced representatives from the leading employer organisations and unions in the Norwegian petroleum industry.

“I felt it was natural for me to take the chair when the Safety Forum was created as a central arena for collaboration on
HSE in the sector,” says Mr Ognedal.

“In the same way, our director for legal and regulatory affairs – who is responsible for developing regulations – chairs the forum for that activity.”

When seeking to solve a problem, it is crucial that everyone involved recognises the issue and has a shared understanding of reality, Mr Ognedal points out.

“Before the Safety Forum was established, we’d started the pilot project for what we now call the RNNP,” he says.

“Anchoring this work in the forum created just such a shared understanding of risk in the industry with the various sides.

“Ownership and involvement are important preconditions for collaboration.”

Creating these collaboration arenas has given the PSA’s management and discipline teams a unique opportunity to entrench projects, share experience and solve common challenges.

A number of important processes and development projects pursued over the past decade have precisely been anchored in the tripartite collaboration.

“We’ve given great emphasis to this cooperation when developing an integrated set of regulations for managing safety and working environment risk in the industry,” says Mr Ognedal.

“Both the regulatory strategy and specific work on the regulations are accordingly entrenched in the Regulatory Forum before consultations begin with all those affected.”

He notes that work on the regulations also embraces harmonisation with EU/European Economic Area legislation, industry standardisation and sharing experience of the existing rules.

In the same way, the Safety Forum has provided anchorage for a number of technical developments – such as the lifeboat project on safe evacuation in compliance with the regulations.

Other examples are the work on reducing hydrocarbon leaks and two major commitments to cut working environment  risk from chemicals and noise exposure respectively.

Processes pursued by this arena are both transparent and fully documented. Minutes and updated progress reports on current issues are posted to the PSA website, contributing to not only open but also binding processes.

“The route from identification of a problem to a shared acceptance that something must be done will vary with the seriousness and complexity of the issue,” says Mr Ognedal.

“Through discussions, debate and contributions from the various sides, we seek to arrive at an agreed understanding of the issue.

“Once the owner of the problem has been identified, the ball starts rolling and often marks the start of a major industry project to reduce major accident and working environment risk.

“As with all work in this industry, the challenge is to achieve local entrenchment so that each company accepts an independent responsibility to convert theory into practice.”

The functional basis of Norway’s regulatory regime for the petroleum sector means that a number of solutions are chosen at the local level.

That underlines the necessity of everyone involved being able to ontribute their local knowledge of systems, technology and work processes.

“The ambition for our industry is that it will be a world leader for HSE,” says Mr Ognedal.

“It’s then crucial that employees have good local knowledge and understanding of risk.

“Companies must also ensure that lessons learnt from the major projects and processes generated in the tripartite
arenas are transferred to and applied at the local level.

“This must be done in close cooperation with the workforce and in compliance with the regulatory requirement for employee codetermination.”

“We must constantly ask ourselves whether we have the relevant and appropriate institutions to exercise the regulatory role in a tripartite collaboration,”  Mr Ognedal emphasises.

“It’s also necessary to appreciate that major differences exist in the industry over facilitating genuine codetermination.
That’s a serious consideration, and we’re following it up.”

Through a number of White Papers over the past 10-12 years, the government has expressed a high level of ambition for the petroleum industry’s commitment to HSE work.

“I’m pleased that we have the government and the Storting [parliament] behind us when we seek to realise common
ambitions for HSE in the industry over the next decade,” says Mr Ognedal.

“If we’re going to succeed, everyone must take responsibility, acknowledge each other’s roles and ensure that the established rules of the game are observed.”