Petrotechnics Featured in Future Rail – Learning From Oil and Gas

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Safety versus productivity is a constant challenge for the Rail industry, but it’s one that the Oil and Gas sector has started to address. Iain Mackay of Petrotechnics shows how rail operators can learn from the Oil and Gas sector.

When the Golden Age of rail is mentioned, it conjures up images of a pre-Beeching era, of puffing steam trains and classic fiction such as The Railway Children. In reality, the Golden Age of rail is now. More passenger journeys are undertaken today than at any point in history. Passenger density is greater than at any point too. The amount of freight carried by train is growing steadily all the time.

There is another side to this reality: the assets on which these journeys are made are aging. Although clouds of steam and sooty faces are no longer a feature of rail travel, there are still oil lamps and Victorian signal boxes on remote parts of the network. While these are being replaced and earlier underinvestment is rectified, modern infrastructure requires regular maintenance and upkeep. As the assets are used more heavily and the demands placed on them increase, the rate of wear and tear accelerates.

The rail industry therefore finds itself in something of a vicious circle: as rail use goes up, so do maintenance requirements. Available capacity is restricted, adding pressures to an already stretched network. The demand for rapid repairs becomes ever greater, while the window in which to perform them gets smaller.

Productivity under pressure

There is a constant tug of war between doing things quickly and doing them safely called the ‘safety-productivity dynamic’. The managers responsible for infrastructure availability and position planning are not necessarily the same people appointed to manage the safe delivery of work. The inevitable consequence is that operational decision-making, and with it overall productivity, will eventually be compromised.

However, ‘safety versus productivity’ is the ever-present conundrum in hazardous industries where heavy machinery, extreme temperatures and explosive amounts of energy meet vulnerable humanity. Failures, whether of safety procedures or delivery schedules, are often high profile and have a very high cost.

The oil and gas industry is one such example. Extremely hazardous when operated with poorly maintained assets, the downtime needed for upkeep and repairs can nonetheless be costly. The pressure is always on to keep a rig or refinery productive but there is an equal pressure to keep people safe.

There are important differences of course. In international oil companies, everybody from the front-line worker to the CEO appreciates that there are risks involved at every stage of the process. These may remain unobserved or simply hidden, and the bigger picture can remain obscure, but it is an accepted fact that this is intrinsically a hazardous environment and therefore the health, safety and environmental factors that come with it are widely understood, acknowledged and respected.

In contrast, when we look at rail, with potentially an equal level of hazard, understanding of risk is less complete. The ever-present threat posed by thousands of tonnes of metal coming down the track at 60 mph is well understood by railway engineers – and safety records in this area are strong. But the deadly silence of a third rail, or the less obvious threats posed by lopping branches from trackside trees are more troubling.

The other important difference is that an offshore oil platform, for example, is a highly controlled environment – no one is there who is not supposed to be. In contrast, railways are public services in public spaces, which introduces many more variables into the mix. Oil industry accidents are rarer but can be catastrophic. Safety failures on railways tend be smaller, but more frequent. As Mark Carne, Chief Executive of Network Rail pointed out, a worker is ten times more likely to be killed in the rail industry than in the oil and gas sector.

So what, if anything, can rail learn from the oil and gas industry?

A common cause

If these industries differ in the nature of the risks they present, they are remarkably similar in the way that the pace of work and the safety of workers can be managed.

Both sectors are highly regulated. Both see risk arise from the point where assets or infrastructure, policies and people start to interact. And both tend to have safety rule books that can be measured in metres rather than page numbers. These rule books are a detailed history of every incident or issue that has arisen in previous decades. As a potential problem becomes apparent, or an accident occurs, mitigating procedures are developed and the remedial response added to the list.

However, what certain players in the oil and gas industry have understood for some time, and rail operators are coming to recognise, is that these incredibly detailed safety procedures may actually be part of the problem and not the solution.

First of all, the more complex the rule book, the more certain it is that a compliant decision in one area will be non-compliant in another. A rig or a railway is rather like a huge machine, in which every asset, every worker and every job is a carefully calibrated cog. Adding a fix to an individual asset or a new procedure for a specific work crew will, over time, cause those cogs to skip, jam or misalign. Fixing a broken cog here could lead to a new problem over there – until eventually the whole machine grinds to a halt.

Second of all, the good intentions of an extensive rule book often don’t survive interaction with high-stress work environments. Take late-night, trackside maintenance with a diverse crew. When caught between an unwieldy set of procedures, a pressure to deliver to tight timetables, and work colleagues who want to get home to their families, any number of possible wrong decisions can be made.

The law of unintended consequences is never far away, and the best of intentions can lead to the most perverse of outcomes. Workers carry on as they always have. They do what their colleagues do. The cog grinds down… work takes longer or costs more than is necessary.

The challenge is to create processes that deliver coherent and consistent practice across a diverse range of assets, people, tasks, locations, and supply chains.

Rigs, railways and risks

Since the Piper Alpha tragedy in the North Sea, the oil and gas industry has had its safety procedures under constant review. Even chefs on oil rigs have specific directives for handling hot food. Lord Cullen’s recommendations for industry spoke of a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for every task.

Over the years, the industry has written a mountain of rule books in reaction to ad hoc incidents. In recent times, however, companies have reassessed this approach, instead taking a more holistic view based upon a comprehensible series of core principles and essential criteria. Processes have then been adopted that provide a complete picture of operations, and parameters set within which people can make good decisions. The resulting decision-making capability has then been supported with the appropriate technology.

This results in a far more manageable set of procedures that take into account the interrelated nature of the hazards, risks, and future plans for the business. By adopting this risk-centric approach, smarter oil companies take a step back and consider how an entire program of work can be planned and delivered, or an entire operation managed safely, rather than simply asking how a specific task should be performed.

To make information sharing easier and more meaningful, details about the asset, the policies, the people, is translated into a common language of risk. So instead of defining a task then adding a risk assessment to it, risk is the prism through which every activity is viewed. With this common language of risk, consistent channels are more easily created to share information. Everyone from the ground up has access to the bigger picture.

In this model, front-line engineers know why they are carrying out a given task. They might implement a much-needed short-term fix, for example, but highlight the longer-term remedy that is needed to support future business plans. Managers can see and respond to their staff’s daily interaction with the assets they run and the policies they implement. Smarter decisions can be made about staffing, scheduling and safety.

Getting It Right

It is easy to underestimate what a radical shift in thinking this represents. But the opportunity is there for rail companies to do the same thing. The parallels are clear: the only difference is the timescales. Oil and gas companies have had 20 years to change their thinking; and rail companies can benefit from this experience in their own mission to plan and deliver safe work.

In the face of technology advances that have transformed our world, it’s also easy to overstate the importance of digital support. The reality is that it’s all about getting the right procedures, empowering the right people, and seeing safety as an inherent enabler of productivity.

Ultimately, what oil and gas firms have found is that once the initial changes have bedded in, and the connections between people, processes and assets are opened up, the age-old dynamic between safety and productivity becomes a complementary, rather than a contradictory force.

Click here to read the rest of this issue of Future Rail magazine

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