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Empowering oil rig workers to stop operations not a fail-safe plan

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BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said the company expects to start a static kill of its broken oil well on Tuesday, after it gets federal approval to start the operation.

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By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Overlooked among the systems that apparently failed in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is what could be the most crucial safety device of all: the human blowout preventer.

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Every person working on the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico had the authority to stop action, according to the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon, if he or she considered the situation unsafe. Yet people exposed to an array of hazards refrained from demanding a halt, reflecting a pattern that extends to almost any office cubicle or industrial site.

It is hard to rock the boat -- until it bursts into flames and sinks to the bottom of the ocean -- and a safety policy based on the assumption that any individual will rock the boat is likely to be flawed. Case in point: Michael Williams, a chief electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon who displayed remarkable courage during the disaster and who brought those challenges into focus in testimony to a federal investigative board last month. He described speaking up about problems but there were limits to what he could or would do.

Williams, an employee of rig owner Transocean, said he thought that the blowout preventer -- the last line of defense against a gusher -- had been damaged and that he had seen chunks of its black rubber innards ejected from the well.

There was never enough time to keep up with scheduled maintenance on the rig, he said, and some parts were so old that it took a year to get replacements custom made. In addition, to avoid the nuisance of false alarms, a system meant to automatically warn the entire crew about fire or leaking gas was routinely deactivated.

Meanwhile, a computer used to monitor and control drilling operations intermittently crashed, leaving the driller staring at "the blue screen of death."

In the middle of sensitive operations, the driller could switch chairs and move to backup computers, but if the backups failed, Williams said, the next step would be to "abandon ship." Switching to a backup is not without risk, he pointed out: During the drilling of an earlier well, while the computer was out of commission for several seconds, the rig incurred a kick of gas, he said.

At the government hearing in Kenner, La., attorneys for BP, Transocean and the captain of the Deepwater Horizon pressed Williams about his power to shut down the rig.

"I want to ask whether or not you knew that you in fact not only had a right but you had an obligation to stop anything that you believed to be unsafe," said Kyle Schonekas, an attorney for the captain.

"Yes," Williams said.

"You ever ask to stop operations on the rig because of the blue screen of death?" BP attorney Richard Godfrey asked.

"No, I did not. We had two other chairs," Williams answered.


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