The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

A System that Decides in Favor of Safety

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted April 21, 2014

I sat in on a luncheon briefing for reporters last week that featured Charlie Williams, executive director of the Center for Offshore Safety (COS), which focuses exclusively on enhancing the safety of offshore oil and natural gas.

Williams, a long-time engineer with Shell before agreeing to lead the COS, talked about the center’s activities in interesting detail – all designed to ensure a continuing culture of safety in offshore energy operations. It starts with recognizing where threats to safety come from and erecting barriers to those threats, he said.

The front line in this approach is member companies’ safety and environmental management systems or SEMS, which the federal government requires from operators working on the outer continental shelf. SEMS are built on technical standards (which industry has developed on a continuing basis for nearly a century) and adoption of safe work practices and safe operational procedures, Williams said. The center helps member companies implement SEMS, works with them on the third-party audits of their SEMS and also on the accreditation of the auditors themselves.

Williams said the center’s goals include helping companies “develop a (safety) management system that always decides in favor of safety,” and he said that SEMS are strengthened by “sharing the information, knowing where the gaps are and closing the gaps through good practices.”

capping_stackCOS also collects data from member companies under a “blind source” reporting system, which encourages reporting. This allows everyone – industry and regulators – to benefit from the information that’s gathered. “Learning together,” Williams said.

Practically speaking, Williams said industry’s response capability in the Gulf has more than doubled in recent years. Oil slick detection is improved, as is the ability to conduct safety operations at night and in bad weather, he said. In addition, state-of-the-art containment equipment (photo) and technology has been developed and can rapidly be deployed at the first sign of a spill at the wellhead.

Williams’ presentation is timely, considering these recent comments from the former co-chairs of President Obama’s national oil spill commission (subscription required):

Government and industry are working together to create a safety-conscious culture in the offshore drilling industry. And the industry has substantially improved its capacity to respond to rupturing wells by pre-positioning caps for ready deployment should trouble occur. Thus, offshore drilling is safer than it was four years ago.

Earlier this month the COS hosted its second annual forum in Houston. Brian Salerno, director of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and Rear Admiral Joseph Servidio, the U.S. Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for prevention policy, were keynote speakers. Discussions centered on lessons learned from the first cycle of SEMS audits and the importance of a safety culture.

This is the path to steadily improving safety – industry and regulatory officials working and learning together.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.