Corporate Law

Despite Hi-Tech Safety Equipment, Lack of Training Aided Oil Rig Disaster, NY Times Reports

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After the Deepwater Horizon blew up in an inferno of flames in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, many assumed the fire on the drilling rig was an inevitable result of the oil spilling out of the undersea well that its crew had mistakenly failed to seal.

But in fact there were multiple safety devices and procedures that could still have prevented the fiery explosion or at least reduced the injuries and fatalities among the crew. And it appears that one of the main reasons why the safety devices and procedures didn’t work is that those in charge of the state-of-the-art rig had failed to train the crew to use them, reports a lengthy New York Times feature.

In a dramatic cautionary tale about what can happen when a safety plan has significant shortcomings, the newspaper recounts, minute by minute, what happened on the Deepwater Horizon after the well was breached and crew members soon found themselves in the midst of a Hollywood disaster movie scenario that was all too real.

At one point, the article says, those on the bridge in charge of the rig were so overwhelmed by a multitude of warning lights about gas intrusion that they failed to sound a general master alarm, losing critical minutes that could have been used to evacuate the crew. The warning also could have automatically been made by the rig’s safety equipment, but that feature had been disabled to prevent false alarms from waking everyone up in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, lower-ranking officers on the rig felt they didn’t have authority to make critical decisions. And written policies about what to do didn’t make clear what procedures they were to follow in an all-out emergency that was shutting down the ship’s engines and power systems amidst explosions, smoke, flames and a rain of misty, flammable gas. Likewise, drills had focused on routine problems the crew was likely to encounter, rather than a perfect storm of multiple mistakes and system failures, the article recounts.

The rig’s owner, Transocean, had provided a detailed handbook on dealing with a blowout, urging rapid action but warning against potentially expensive overreaction. Fred Bartlit, who is serving as chief counsel for a presidential commission investigating the disaster, calls the handbook “a safety expert’s dream,” but says he had a hard time answering a basic question after reading it: “How do you know it’s bad enough to act fast?”

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