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Outside auditors could go offshore for drilling safety

By Emily Pickerell Updated 10:33 p.m., Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An industry safety clearinghouse formed after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill is about to kick off a program for certifying outside auditors that the government soon may require to examine offshore operators’ safety plans.

Charlie Williams, executive director of the Houston-based Center for Offshore Safety, said at a meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board Tuesday that regulators now allow internal auditors to meet requirements for independent audits of company programs called Safety and Environmental Management Systems.

Proposed federal requirements, however, would require that auditors outside of an offshore company sign off on its safety systems. Williams said the regulatory change was under way before the April 20, 2010, blowout of BP’s Macondo well that killed 11 workers and spilled several million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

The disaster, however, led to a new focus on industry dangers and to the creation of the Center for Offshore Safety, which is charged with developing audit procedures and certifying auditors.

Williams, a former top Shell scientist, said the audits will help companies with process safety – the management of overall safety systems – as distinct from practices specifically aimed at preventing individual worker injuries.

A presidential commission that investigated the Macondo accident recommended the industry initiative that led to the Center for Offshore Safety. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry advocacy group that has developed recommended practices for safety systems, requires that its members also join the center, which is supported by dues.

API’s recommended practices form the basis for Safety and Environmental Management Systems now required by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

The Offshore Safety Center helps companies develop the systems, elements of which include hazards analysis, mechanical integrity and incident investigations.

Williams said established entities such as the American Bureau of Shipping, which develops standards for vessels and marine structures, and Det Norske Veritas, a risk management firm, probably will provide the first ranks of independent offshore safety auditors.

And going forward, he sees a growth industry.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity to develop auditors to do this,” Williams said.

He also emphasized that process safety is an ongoing effort requiring a sense of “constant unease” that encourages caution.

“You can’t say, ‘I’ll work real hard on safety today’ and tomorrow I’ll be safe,” Williams said.

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