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BP Safety Chief: Big Talk, but What Else?

BP executives can’t seriously believe that this time
they’ll get safety right. The company’s penny-pinching “safety be
damned” culture is too entrenched to reverse -- especially if you put the
old vice-president of excuses in charge of the new plan.

BP’s new CEO Robert Dudley announced a sweeping overhaul of its
safety division Wednesday, yet put the company’s current Vice President
for Safety and Operations, Mark Bly, in charge.

Bly produced BP’s own report on
the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which tellingly attempted to
shove much of the blame onto subcontractors, especially rig owner
Transocean and Halliburton, the company hired to cap the well before the
April blowout. The closest the report issued Sept. 8 came to saying
that Bly’s own company, and his own safety division, had a systemic
safety problem was this:

It may also be appropriate for BP to consider further
work to examine potential systemic issues beyond the immediate cause and
system cause scope of this investigation.

Say what?

Back in 2007, Bly was the regional head of BP’s exploration and
production in the Gulf of Mexico when he gave a speech that lavishly
praised the safety plan of then-new CEO Tony Hayward. Hayward was
struggling to overcome investigations that found a safety-be-damned culture in BP’s deadly 2005 Texas City refinery explosion and its 2006 Arctic pipeline spill.

A BP internal publication, BPTT Insider, reported on Bly’s 2007 speech to employees in Trinidad:

Becoming a safe and reliable operator, he said, is an
extension of everything that happened after Texas City. “With [CEO Tony
Hayward's] Six-Point Plan and many of the things that all of the parts
of BP are deeply engaged in… it is absolutely clear that Tony has placed
that as the highest priority for the firm. It is a continuation of the
drive on personal safety that we have been on for many years,” he said.

By early 2008, Hayward had promoted Bly to global safety chief, and
Bly was rolling out his “Getting the Basics Right” safety program,
focused on training staff in “Operating Essentials.” (OE).  BP’s internal magazine touted the plan in June 2008, quoting Bly:

“Our goal is to move BP to become a leader in process safety, as well as personal safety.”

The report described the program’s aim:

OE is far from just another prescriptive training
initiative, dispensing talks and a sheaf of booklets. BP believes the
way to safer, more reliable and effective operations is through real
communication: honest conversations with people who feel comfortable
enough to speak freely and know that they are being listened to.

Yet we know that in 2010, BP’s managers in the Gulf seemed to shun
communication in favor of giving orders aimed at cutting costs. BP’s own
local safety manager, even after the blowout, said the corner-cutting
on drilling equipment and safety measures had nothing to do with the
blowout. From the Houston Chronicle:

Steve Tink, BP’s health and safety team leader for
drilling and completions in the Gulf of Mexico, said the company’s drive
to control the massive costs of drilling a deepwater well is not in
conflict with promoting safe operations.

“Our basic philosophy on that is that a safe rig is an efficient rig,” he testified.

This is one of the safety leaders who, presumably, was in Bly’s department and thoroughly trained in his process safety program.

Yet efficiency, in the oil and refinery business, means running the
machines at all costs, because every “unnecessary” shutdown or repair is
a dead loss. Efficiency is not equal to safety.

Last year, OSHA fined BP a record $87 million for not repairing
problems that led to the 2005 blast at the Texas City refinery. Only
weeks before the Gulf blowout, the same refinery burned half a million pounds of toxic chemicals without even alerting nearby residents. This failure occurred squarely on Bly’s watch.

The last two leaders of BP–Lord Browne and Tony Hayward, both talked
big a about safety after their catastrophes. Now Dudley is talking the
same talk. But he’s putting in charge the safety chief who didn’t fix
the Texas City refinery, didn’t put safety first on every drilling rig,
shoved blame for the Gulf spill on others and declined to say “sorry.”

Bly talks a good game, but he’s a company man in a company that, when
it comes to safety, can’t seem to get beyond writing the training