From outer space to offshore

There is increased focus on human factors in the offshore industry, aiming to improve communications and leadership to cut down the scope for human error. At Maersk Training, former NASA employees are bringing practices from outer space to the offshore industry.

From outer space
Former NASA employees Michele Blanton and Evelyn Baldwin are bringing practices from outer space to offshore workers.

Maersk Training in Houston

  • The Houston centre, which opened last year, is the world’s most advanced offshore simulation complex.
  • Maersk Training now carries out training in 10 facilities around the world and counts more than 100,000 man-days per year.
  • BP, Transocean and Seadrill are just some of the external companies that Maersk Training signed new contracts with in 2015.

What do the International Space Station and an offshore drilling rig have in common?

In Maersk Training’s brand new, light and airy Houston centre – packed with simulators that mimic situations found on rigs, ships and platforms – former NASA employees Evelyn Baldwin and Michele Blanton are bringing practices from outer space to offshore workers, to eliminate errors and improve safety and performance.

They hold regular classes for drilling teams, both offshore and onshore colleagues, focusing on human factors – understanding how we behave in certain situations and improving the fit between ­people and the systems in which they work.

“We look at the skills that turn a team into a system – communications, leadership – and strengthen those,” says Baldwin, who worked for NASA, the US space agency, for eight years as a communications and tracking instructor for the International Space Station (ISS). Baldwin then moved to GE Oil & Gas, part of the US conglomerate General Electric, before joining Maersk Training in 2015.

Baldwin and Blanton were part of the NASA ground team in Houston that works with astronauts and researchers to develop processes and skills to keep them safe at an altitude of more than 400 kilometres.

The ISS is a research laboratory which aims to help us better understand the earth it is orbiting. It has a crew of six who are switched in and out on a regular basis. In this context, working clearly and efficiently across cultural and national boundaries – and indeed the boundary of space – is vital.

“It’s about how humans work with equipment, technology and so on and reducing errors,” says Blanton, who spent almost 15 years with NASA before taking the opportunity to get in at the start of human factors training in a new industry.

“The aim is to have set ways of communication. At the moment, there are no strong protocols. So we’re trying to teach people on drillships to use correct terminology and be aware of the audience they’re speaking with – no unfamiliar words or slang.”

Aeronautics and aerospace
For BP, which is working with Maersk Drilling’s ultra-deep-water semi-submersible Maersk Discoverer offshore Egypt, human factors is a major focus area, says David Lobdell, Competence Management Manager at BP.

The crew – onshore and offshore, BP, Maersk Drilling and third parties – has gone through human factors training and it contributed to completion of a drilling programme with no significant safety incidents, over 100 days ahead of plan and at approximately 40% less than the planned cost.

“Everywhere we operate, we’re still dealing with people, and people make mistakes – it’s a fact of life, so the question is, how do you minimise these?” says Lobdell, who appreciates the importance of human factors from his time flying fighters for the US Navy.

“BP feels strongly that by training and exercising together, we enhance the competency of each individual on the team and the team as a whole,” says Lobdell. “By working together, we will make wells safer, more reliable and bring up the performance of the industry.”

From outer space
Lessons from NASA are being applied in the offshore industry.

The safety and operational performance accomplished by Maersk Discoverer can support Maersk Drilling’s overall position in the current difficult market conditions, where there is a strong focus on the ability to deliver a safe drilling operation in an efficient way. So investing in human factor training can be good business.

“As proven in other industries such as the airline industry, you need integrated technical and human factor training conducted in an environment as close to reality as possible, to train and observe people’s human factor skills like situational awareness, leadership, decision making and communication,” says Vibeke Sam, Head of Learning at Maersk Drilling, which worked together with BP to develop the tailored training course for Maersk Discoverer.

“Both in the simulation environment at Maersk Training in Houston and in Svendborg, we have the opportunity to run real life offshore scenarios and have very skilled human factor specialists that can give valuable feedback to the crew on their performance.”

A lot in common
Half of human factors training is spent in the classroom, talking about theory and the language that team members use. The other 50% consists of simulator time and debriefing, with the aim of recreating real-life situations and observing the way people interact with one another and their reactions and behaviour in a totally safe environment.

It is about how people communicate when they are working – with immediate colleagues, other teams, leaders and onshore colleagues – to eliminate errors. One such error could be, for example, someone using a word that another person, of a different nationality, does not understand, a dangerous situation not being properly reported, or a worker not fully absorbing a warning from a colleague.

“They are two different industries but they have a lot in common,” says Blanton, the human factors trainer.

“Both have high expertise and technical equipment that have to work together, and whether you’re up in space or offshore, you’re a long way from outside help.

Everything has to tie together.”