As the tragic events in Paris reminded us, terrorism is a threat to everyone. That includes the Gulf of Mexico. However, terrorism is not the only threat, and perhaps not the most pressing one.

Perhaps the least acknowledged and understood threat to the Gulf of Mexico is the offshore workforce.

Bruce Burch, senior well control engineer at Mercury Well Control, delivered a scary, but truthful presentation to the Drilling Engineering Committee meeting in Houston in November. He detailed the scope of potential human failure in the Gulf of Mexico in the present, depressed environment. The human factor crisis revolves around two issues, according to Burch.

The first is training, which he said has gotten lax. That applies not just to classroom training but also to follow-up training and on-the-job experience. In the current environment, with personnel worried about job retention and re-employment prospects, full attention is not devoted to tasks at hand, including training.

This is exacerbated, Burch argues, by accepting subjective evidence as fact. That is, we take mistaken observations and definitive, but unproven, statements as facts that we then act upon, although they may be no more than one colleagues’ repeated assertions or another’s comments resulting from a misunderstood observation.

“And if the ‘fact’ – although not correct – doesn’t cause a major impact, we assume it’s right until years down the road,” said Burch, when we prove with technology that the “fact” is not a fact, or when the “fact” causes a major issue, as in Macondo.

Having lived through a significant downturn in the offshore industry, I can attest to Burch’s observations. I have seen a distracted workforce make errors. Have you ever seen a 10-ton anchor free fall on to the deck of an OSV after the crane operator hit the wrong lever? They don’t bounce. Ever been on a platform tender holed by an OSV whose helmsman wasn’t paying attention? The tender sank at the platform.

Is the industry prepared to deal with this issue going forward? It is tough to say. While industry and regulators have taken important technical steps to prevent another Macondo, the same cannot be said of the threat to marine infrastructure (including OSVs as day rates continue to fall and the market worsens) created by a distracted, inadequately trained and overconfident workforce. That’s the case Burch makes, and it’s well made.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of WorkBoat.