The hard drive for soft skills

By Martijn van der Meijs, a senior leadership consultant with Maersk Training

Enabling human beings to effectively recognise changes, risks and challenges in a complex operational environment so they can prevent incidents from happening
Enabling human beings to effectively recognise changes, risks and challenges in a complex operational environment so they can prevent incidents from happening (photo: Maersk Training)

The blowout of the Macondo well, its resulting damage to the environment and continued heartache felt by 11 families who lost a loved one, remain etched in the memory of those working in the drilling industry. Though they may not have hit the headlines, many more serious and catastrophic incidents and accidents have since occurred across the globe.

Human and organisational factors, including deficiencies in non-technical skills (NTS) are still frequently cited as causal and/or contributory factors in many of these incidents. Across several offshore oil and gas companies there is a degree of maturity that recognises these deficiencies are not the fault of individuals but are due to the way the organisation manages such failings. NTS training is one such component, along with other measures, such as better engineering controls with less reliance on human intervention.

Focusing on human factors, like communication, situation awareness and leadership, is crucial. Not only to reduce human error, but perhaps even more importantly, to enable human beings to effectively recognise changes, risks and challenges in a complex operational environment so they can prevent incidents from happening.

Figure 1. Maersk Drilling and Maersk Training have invested significantly in the training of offshore drilling personnel
Figure 1. Maersk Drilling and Maersk Training have invested significantly in the training of offshore drilling personnel (photo: Maersk Training)

Mind over machine
Training provided by Maersk’s continued investment in high-fidelity simulators and expansion of global facilities as well as the addition of cloud-based solutions for prolonged learning gives current and future drill crews the invaluable “virtual” experience of how their decisions can impact the safety of their asset and the lives of fellow offshore workers.

Managed pressure drilling (MPD) capabilities and high pressure & high temperature (HPHT) techniques can be trained in the simulated environment, to ensure crew arrive prepared for utilising new technology and take it into account when acquiring situational awareness and making decisions in critical situations. Yet while these computer-generated scenarios provide hard lessons on the technical aspects of crew resource management, it is the “soft” skills which can truly aid or abate critical decision-making.

Humans are often the most valuable asset in any organisation or company. Even with the most technologically advanced rig in the world, it is humans that make it work. Drilling operations are often hazardous and complex, so crews need to be trained to work together effectively as a team, aware of their limitations, competent to take timely and qualified actions and decisions. To quote Mark Twain: “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions.” Training in drilling simulators allows people to gain that experience and competence without any operational consequences (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Significant focus on human factors (HF) and non-technical
Figure 2. Significant focus on human factors (HF) and non-technical (photo: Maersk Training)

Simulated training for real world survival
A modern drilling rig can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per day to the operating company to hire, plus a similar sum of money again in operating expenses. Along with the technical challenges, there is a constant balancing act with safety. If crews don’t fully understand hazards and risks, fail to recognise potential decision biases, struggle to identify safety issues from background noise: or are less than 100% confident to raise a safety concern, then operations being stopped purely on safety grounds is unlikely.

Built to “build competency, not for compliance,” Maersk’s simulators offer a 180° side view and 90° vertical view, as well as pipe-handling and well control training capabilities. It is equipped to perform well control downhole simulations with 3D graphics, thus enabling both highly precise rig and operations specific challenges, as well as the perfect environment for developing a more resilient drilling team.

Maintaining safe operations, particularly in hazardous environments is highly reliant on the remote crew receiving, interpreting, and acting together on data from a range of sources often in a challenging, high-pressure, and remote workplace. To take competence to the next level, Maersk’s centres provide a mix of classroom and simulator training.

Before drill crews can take the controls of a simulator, two days are spent learning about human limitations and enhancing risk perception. This in-depth focus on psychological behaviours, attitudes and actions had been initially scoffed at by drillers but they quickly realise that indecision or inaction can cause or escalate a major incident (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Human and organisational factors, including deficiencies in non-technical skills are still frequently cited as causal and/or contributory factors in many incidents
Figure 3. Human and organisational factors, including deficiencies in non-technical skills are still frequently cited as causal and/or contributory factors in many incidents (photo: Maersk Training)

For some, it’s a wake-up call and puts greater onus and realism to the critical situations trainees face in the simulators. Without an accurate understanding of such risks, then other non-technical skills, such as situation awareness, communication and decision-making are immediately inhibited.

Exercises in the advanced drilling simulator, which closely replicates the drillers’ cabin offshore right down to use of a “cyber” chair, often last several hours. From a mundane task to one which can quickly escalate into a serious well control incident, the outcome depends on the response of the team.

Throughout the training, drillers are monitored and evaluated by the instructors and a thorough debrief explores the actions taken or otherwise and lessons to be taken forward. The goal is to embed reflection and continuous improvement, with the inclusion of the human factors, into offshore operations.

Optimum performance and safe operations
In a number of cases, simulators are also used to begin development of drillers’ psychomotor skills, particularly for frequent tasks such as pipe handling. This training can include:

  • Increasing realism of team dynamics by enabling the participants to have contact with all key rig personnel.
  • Improving quality of communication within and across rig disciplines.
  • Having a stronger focus on abnormal and emergency well control situations, where the potential for human failure is high due to task complexity and task novelty.
  • Enhancement of greater understanding of the human and organisational factors that cause or contribute to major accidents, focusing on process safety rather than personal safety.
  • Increasing participant buy-in in NTS by combining with technical training.

A core part of this training is achieving more advanced risk perception and a set of behaviours related to more engaged, flexible and proactive safety involvement.

Beyond training, Maersk is also undertaking research to understand the nature of human failures more fully in both abnormal and emergency situations.

Competence comprises only part of the picture for optimum performance and safe operations. Maersk Training’s simulator sessions will also include research on human failure. This research will enable more detailed understanding of failures in abnormal and emergency situations, which is often only possible in predictive risk analysis and retrospective incident investigation, both of which have their limitations. This will be used to further enhance the sociotechnical design elements in the simulator system and develop targeted training to enhance drillers’ situation awareness and build a stronger, more holistic safety culture across the energy industry.

Martijn van der Meijs is a senior leadership consultant with Maersk Training
Martijn van der Meijs is a senior leadership consultant with Maersk Training

Martin van der Meijs spent more than 20 years as an officer in the Netherlands Navy and Army. He has extensive experience in international positions and later specialised in media and communications. He joined the oil and gas industry in 2013 as a performance coach offshore and later supporting leadership development with several large companies. He started working with Maersk Training in Stavanger, Norway 3 years ago as a senior leadership consultant and human factors instructor, both in simulator courses and at offshore locations.