Engineering Safety (Part One)

Watching the movie Deepwater Horizon got me thinking about current attitudes on workplace safety.

(Full disclosure — I am a bit of a crank on this subject due to the death of my father in an industrial accident in 1978.)

Nothing can convince me that there is a level of “acceptable risk” for the workplace. People can certainly choose to do dangerous things in the name of sport or adventure, but no one should be put in danger just by working to provide for their family.

The film is a dramatization of the April 2010 explosion of the oil well drilling ship of the same name that resulted in millions of barrels of oil befouling the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental catastrophe got most of the headlines; the death of ELEVEN workers was almost ignored. I do not know how accurately the movie depicts events leading up to the blowout. But because the Coast Guard inquiry is a public record and the movie producers did not want to get sued by the large companies involved, I have some confidence in the technical details as presented.

I had a project going in Texas during that time period and heard many theories from the oil equipment engineers I encountered during my visits. Amongst people who had been on the drilling platforms, this was not just speculation — their livelihoods and personal safety were on the line. It was the difference between involvement and commitment; an old joke about the difference between those terms centers on a ham-and-egg breakfast: the chicken is involved, while the pig is committed. When you set foot on a drilling ship, you are committed.

The same can be said for every workplace, i.e. — when you report for work your livelihood, health and future can be damaged because your organization — or your coworkers — ignore warning signs; dismiss contrary opinions; skimp on maintenance; falsify test results; skip important processes; or put schedule or profit ahead of doing things right.

This film had all of these errors, plus the unforgiveable sin of playing the “I’m paying for this” card. Can you imagine having to live the rest of your life with the knowledge that your pulling rank got eleven people killed? I know that some will say it was “an accident.”

For an engineer, that excuse is never acceptable.

About Charles D. Schultz 678 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.