Building Safety Culture in High-Hazard Environments: Lessons from 1 Offshore Tragedy

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May 15, 2024

Building Safety Culture in High-Hazard Environments

The following story is based on a true and lived experience by our CEO, Karin.

Setting the Scene

In 2009, a safety incident occurred on a semi-submersible rig off the coast of Nigeria, serving as a reminder of the challenges of maintaining safety standards in high-risk, high-hazard environments.

The rig had been operational for many years, and some areas were marked off due to safety concerns. Despite these challenges, the crew was diligent in their work, and safety leadership workshops were regularly conducted to instil efficient and safe practices.

The importance of such workshops cannot be overstated.

With personnel from diverse backgrounds and varying experience levels, safety leadership workshops offered guidance on navigating cultural differences, effective communication, and fostering a unified approach to safety.

These initiatives built a shared understanding that safety was a top priority.

The Workshop and the Incident

A workshop was in progress on that fateful day, bringing together key personnel to discuss practical strategies and building safety culture. The facilitator guided the team through discussions on leadership in high-hazard environments and how to ensure safety protocols were upheld in challenging situations.

Participants were learning practical skills and sharing their insights when, halfway through the session, one by one, key individuals began to receive urgent calls and excused themselves.

As more participants were summoned away, the atmosphere in the room grew tense. The facilitator could feel the energy shift. By the time only a few participants remained, it was clear that something serious had occurred. When the safety officer was called away, the workshop was halted.

The facilitator went to the Offshore Installation Manager's (OIM) office to determine what was happening. The scene was eerie, with no OIM present and the monitoring screens showing a body bag being hauled up from a column lift known to be unsafe. Tragically, a worker had fallen 100 feet down the column lift and lost his life.

Impact on the Crew

The aftermath of the incident rippled through the rig.

The crew, most of whom were far from home, was devastated by the loss of a colleague and friend. They struggled to process the tragedy amid speculation and rumours about the circumstances of the fall. The OIM, who had lost a valued team member and close friend, was visibly distraught.

The immediate response was relentless.

Specialist investigators, police, government bodies, safety experts, and organisational leaders descended on the rig to assess the incident and initiate inquiries. The crew was under intense scrutiny, often feeling like the search for answers and accountability overshadowed their grief.

The OIM had to continue leading, but his burden was immense. His every decision and word was being scrutinised, leaving little room for the genuine emotions he was grappling with.

Supporting the Crew

Support was critical in this time of distress.

Initially brought in to conduct a series of safety leadership workshops and coaching to foster building safety culture, the facilitator has now assumed a new role: grief counsellor.

A room was set aside for confidential sessions where affected individuals could share their feelings and receive comfort. The crew had already established trust with the facilitator through previous interactions, and many turned to this outlet to offload their fears, guilt, and sadness.

These sessions revealed the enormous weight many individuals carried, not only because of the incident but also due to personal struggles amplified by the isolation of offshore work.

The facilitator's empathetic and nurturing approach allowed crew members to express emotions that might have been suppressed otherwise. They found solace in a supportive space where they could reflect on their experiences and the unfolding tragedy.

Challenges of Safety Leadership

The incident highlighted the challenges of safety leadership in high-hazard environments.

Rig work demands not just adherence to safety protocols but also a culture of openness, communication, and trust. The facilitator realised that safety behaviour coaching was vital in equipping leaders to navigate these challenges.

By building safety culture through resilience, understanding, and meaningful conversations, leaders could empower their teams and nurture a culture where safety is ingrained in every action and decision.

Lessons Learned and the Path Forward

The tragedy underscored the importance of maintaining rigorous safety standards and cultivating an environment where concerns could be openly addressed.

Leaders must actively listen to their teams, provide clear guidance, and empower their crew to prioritise safety without fear of repercussions. Workshops and coaching became even more critical as tools for reinforcing safety practices, encouraging communication, and building safety culture.

This incident remains a stark reminder of the need for continuous improvement. It prompted a comprehensive review of safety protocols, communication channels, and leadership structures on rigs across the industry.

It also led to the realisation that emotional support is indispensable in the aftermath of such incidents.

Importance of Conversations that Matter

Ultimately, this story is about the value of conversations that matter.

Sharing thoughts and experiences with a professional coach can transform individuals and organisations alike, whether after an incident or for personal development.

The crew's resilience and the facilitator's unwavering support during the tragedy showed how compassionate coaching and empathetic leadership could bridge divides and support growth.

A note from Karin

It was a draining and devastating event. To this day, conversations that were shared with me during those ‘grief counselling’ sessions have never been shared.

By living through this critical event, I profoundly understood that sharing with a professional coach or any support person—whether offloading after an incident or engaging in ongoing personal development—can make an enormous difference in people’s lives.

The event remains sharp, vivid, and sorrowful to me. It drives my passion for helping people have a better day on the job by improving conversation skills and psychological and emotional safety.

Let's have a conversation

Book a complimentary call if you would like to learn more about our onboard/on-site safety and observation coaching and how we can support the culture you desire. Together, we can design the path you are looking for.

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