Quality time urged for regulators, rig workers

06 20, 2012 by Houston Chronicle

Federal inspectors evaluating the safety of offshore drilling operations should make longer visits to the facilities, spend more time at meals with workers and even share their living quarters, the National Research Council said in a report Tuesday.

It also recommended that the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement hire more inspectors to police the offshore drilling industry and establish whistle-blower programs to encourage workers to report problems anonymously.

The Interior Department sponsored the study by the National Research Council -the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

"Overnight stays would increase the time BSEE staff would be able to spend interacting with the operating crew," the council advised. "More time on an installation would enable inspectors to better judge the degree to which a safety culture exists there."

Other countries routinely allow such extended visits, but BSEE ethics rules get in the way, the council said. Those policies generally bar the bureau's inspectors from traveling on company helicopters, eating company-provided food or staying in operator-furnished quarters.

Safety bureau spokesman Nicholas Pardi said the agency would review the study's recommendations.

Routine inspector visits are essential, the council said, but its study focused on evaluating ways the safety bureau can go beyond a checklist approach to inspections and monitor process safety at offshore drilling operations more holistically.

The council suggested BSEE consider changing its ethics policies to accommodate longer offshore site visits and company-provided flights to the operations. The agency also will probably need to hire more inspectors, the study said.

To offset the additional costs, the agency could raise inspection fees on the offshore drilling industry - although the industry likely would resist such a move.

The council also recommended a new whistle-blower program "to help monitor the culture of safety that actually exists at each installation."

That dovetails with a whistle-blower hotline established months after the 2011 Gulf of Mexico oil spill during an overhaul of government offshore drilling oversight.