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Michael Kelleher Michael Kelleher
Principal Consultant: Knowledge Management Competence Centre
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  • Knowledge critical to safe operations needs capturing for sharing

  • Formal knowledge risk management is key to maintaining safety

  • Emerging or skills gaps can be countered by reducing knowledge risk

  • A new software app helps to lessen the risk of knowledge loss

Thirty years after the Piper Alpha tragedy, and despite huge improvements in oil and gas safety since, regulators worldwide remain concerned over major accident hazard management (MAHM). They are watching for any sign that gaps in safety-related skills may potentially arise and lead to a higher incidence of major accidents in an industry picking up after the oil price downturn. 

One sign of persistent concern came in a report in early 2018 from an industry-government working group for a Norwegian government review of offshore health, safety, and environmental performance. It commented that although the level of health, safety, and the working environment offshore Norway was high, safety challenges and serious conditions have arisen in the past few years.1  

Operators seeking enhanced but cost-effective approaches to MAHM are turning not only to new technologies, but also to management processes that optimize the huge value that experienced people can bring to safe operations in the global oil and gas industry. 

Companies that formally manage ‘knowledge risk’ to identify, capture, share, and re-use information can extract need-to-know, safety-related information from experts and departments. It is a safeguard against the potential loss of safety-critical knowledge if staff move within the industry or leave it. 

Knowledge risk moves up the agenda

Regulators and industry leaders acknowledge the importance of safety knowledge transfer among people within the workforce.    

Speaking at a June 2018 conference discussing the safety legacy of Piper Alpha2, Martin Temple, chair of the UK safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, said: “What we want to get out of today is the transfer of knowledge from people who were there at the time [of Piper Alpha].” He expressed the hope that lessons from and since Piper Alpha will be handed to younger people to carry the legacy forward. 

Accidents usually result from complex interactions between people and plant. “This is why the oil and gas industry needs rigorous systems to check for weaknesses in both elements,” said Hari Vamadevan, senior vice president, DNV GL - Oil & Gas, in addressing the same conference. He observed that while risk management processes to enhance safety are important, people can be ignorant of the risk. 

With the cost of ignorance being potentially high in terms of human lives and financial consequences, the industry faces a knowledge risk challenge. Advanced technologies and better use of data are helping to meet it, but the human factor in safety control remains central to the design and implementation of knowledge risk management strategies.

The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) found that among 45 reporting member companies operating in 104 countries, the number of fatal incidents per year rose from 29 to 30 between 2016 and 2017.3 IOGP’s analysis showed that at least 87% of the fatal incidents involved breaches of its own longstanding Life-Saving Rules and that many such fatalities are preventable. 

A special report re-affirms concern over safety spending in the sector.4 Close to half (46%) of senior oil and gas industry professionals believe there has been underinvestment in inspection and maintenance of infrastructure and equipment in recent years, according to DNV GL research.5  

The industry should always have “a healthy sense of unease” over safety, Vamadevan suggested. Pointing out that, in the North Sea, lower oil prices have coincided with a long interval since the last major hydrocarbon release that ignited, he stressed that it would be dangerous to assume that safety is under complete control anywhere in a rapidly-changing industry.

Managing knowledge risk

In mature basins such as the North Sea, knowledge of design, non-routine issues, and asset-specific knowledge is usually only fully understood by a few people, observed Dr Michael Kelleher, principal consultant, knowledge management, DNV GL. 

“It is not easily found by others who may need it, including people responsible for safety,” he added. “Knowledge can also be lost through employee retirement, mergers, acquisitions, industry contraction and increased reliance on supply chains or sub-contracted expertise.” 

A robust approach involves identifying knowledge risk, evaluating it, capturing and transferring knowledge into accessible form, sharing it, and re-using it.

“Visualize knowledge as an iceberg with a small part of its bulk — the easy-to-get, explicit knowledge held in documents, images and reports — visible above the water; and the vast majority, the tacit knowledge held in the heads of people, submerged,” Kelleher suggested (Figure 1 ). 

Learning from a range of industries

In safety-critical environments, all relevant knowledge, information, and data should ideally be easily available and understandable when and where needed. In reality, it can be out-of-date, incomplete, and scattered.

Some major international oil and gas companies are recognized leaders in addressing this, Kelleher noted: “However, there is increasing interest across the value chain and scale of organization. Learnings are also available from other industries.”

Case studies of DNV GL assisting customers with knowledge risk management include projects with UK gas distribution network operator SGN, the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and Rijkswaterstaat, part of the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.

Tools for knowledge management

DNV GL builds web-based platforms for knowledge risk management, and is developing an online application to help organizations identify where critical knowledge is at risk of being lost. 

“It is an easily-used tool based on the simple human concept of a conversation between a line manager and a member of staff,” Kelleher said. “The app shows where knowledge risks lie. Is it individual staff members, specific departments or locations, all of them, or something else? It enables users to prioritize programmes of knowledge capture and transfer to control knowledge risk.”

He invited DNV GL customers to get in touch if they are interested in testing a demonstrator model of the tool: “Collaboration will help make the final app as robust and useful as possible. We are also drawing on work with clients to create a toolkit for managing incident knowledge retention.”

Knowledge risk management to future-proof oil and gas operations

Sound knowledge management strategies and design can help organizations to improve safety practice and respond to safety challenges, Kelleher said. 

“Organizations benefit from having a single point to access knowledge for all their different domains,” said Kelleher. One example outside oil and gas is the SKYbrary website repository of safety knowledge related to flight operations, air traffic management, and aviation safety in general. Air traffic controllers and air pilots are among the contributors. DNV GL designed and built the platform, and recommended the parameters, templates, and practices for it. 

Long-term knowledge retention and sharing are best developed in communities of practice who may meet physically and often share a virtual platform, Kelleher advised. “Similarly, the best way to proactively share information captured by a knowledge risk management programme in oil and gas is through a platform for safety representatives [‘rep’] community,” he said. “It provides safety reps throughout the organization with access to safety rep information, expertise, and lessons learned.”

This would enhance safety reps’ emerging role as key influencers in major accident hazard management, said Fiona FitzGerald, principal consultant, DNV GL. “Our experience and independent research shows that when safety reps can access the resources they need to fulfil their role effectively, they can provide valuable insights through their intimate knowledge of plant and their understanding of hazards.”

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References

1 ‘Helse, arbeidsmiljø og sikkerhet i petroleumsvirksomheten’, Rapport fra partssammensatt arbeidsgruppe, Oslo, Norway, January 2018

2 ‘Safety 30 – Piper Alpha legacy: securing a safer future’, organized by Oil & Gas UK in association with the International Regulators’ Forum, Aberdeen, UK, June 2018

3 ‘Safety performance indicators – 2017 data’, IOGP, June 2018

4 ‘The state of safety: the outlook for the oil and gas industry in 2018’, DNV GL, May 2018

5 ‘Confidence and Control: the outlook for the oil and gas industry in 2018', DNV GL, January 2018

Figure 1: Knowledge is at risk of being lost
Figure 1: Knowledge is at risk of being lost

Disclaimer: 

DNV GL prides itself on providing accurate information but makes no claims or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of contents in this publication, and disclaims liability for any errors or omissions. The authors’ views here do not necessarily reflect DNV GL’s views.