Can Mindfulness Keep Offshore Energy Workers Safe?

The risks of working in the offshore energy industry are well-documented – long hours, dangerous equipment, extreme weather and weeks away from family and friends. The results can be catastrophic, illustrated by the 2010 blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 people and spilled millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

A partnership between academic researchers and two energy companies, Diamond Offshore Drilling and Baker Hughes, will build new evidence-based tools to enhance safety by examining whether simple exercises designed to increase mindfulness can reduce the risks. The work, led by Christiane Spitzmueller, professor of industrial psychology at the University of Houston, Kasia Curry at Baker Hughes and Brian Carrico at Diamond Offshore Drilling, will translate research on mindfulness to the energy industry.

Participating offshore workers will undergo training as part of a 30-day exercise, consisting of two brief exercises daily. Follow-up employee surveys and company records will be integrated into a database to allow analysis.

Kevin Wetherington, chief health, safety, environment, security and quality officer at Baker Hughes, said the research could have a broad impact.

“By partnering with UH on mindfulness applications to the offshore industry, we are not only equipping our employees with tools that support a safer and healthier work environment, but also participating in a broader discussion across the industry about cultural shifts necessary to apply best practices proven in other industries,” Wetherington said.

The work is funded with $802,000 from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Co-investigators include Peggy Lindner, assistant professor in the UH College of Technology; Jaye Derrick, associate professor of social psychology at UH; Mike Zvolensky, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor of psychology and director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory at UH; and Rhona Flin of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. 

Spitzmueller said the exercises teach people to focus on the moment and on specific tasks. Based on research in other industries, including health care, the researchers expect to find a link between mindfulness and better safety outcomes.

In this case, “mindfulness” isn’t a new-age concept but one designed to signify better awareness of what is happening on the offshore installation. The exercises will be modified from those used for the military and first responders to make sure they match the cultural environment offshore, Spitzmueller said.

“Up to now, many people have been thinking of mindfulness as something akin to their wife’s yoga class,” she said. “That may not be culturally appealing to offshore workers. Through our project, we are working to reap the benefits around mindfulness while generating mindfulness exercises that work for offshore workers.”

Success will be defined as lowering rates of safety-related incidents, both for process safety – things like equipment downtime – as well as personal safety. Participants will be surveyed to determine if health and sleep has improved, benchmarked against workers who did not participate in the exercises.

Industry executives said the project is an example of creative efforts underway to improve offshore safety.

Carrico, who is Health, Safety & Environment (HSE) International and Process Safety manager at Diamond Offshore Drilling, said concern for health, safety and the environment dominate every aspect of the business. “We are excited to be an integral part of such a leading-edge research project, which will provide invaluable information from our employees working offshore,” he said.

Neil Hall, vice president for HSE, Quality and Maintenance at Diamond, agreed.

“The team is embarking on something that is entirely new to the offshore drilling industry and will hopefully help us continue to improve our HSE performance and ensure all our workforce comes home safely,” he said.

Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer at UH, said the project holds promise for a variety of operations. He is also director of the Subsea Systems Institute, a national research center founded to improve worker training and offshore safety.

“An easy-to-implement safety program would be useful across a number of operations, but that’s especially true offshore because the stakes are so high,” Krishnamoorti said.

Alberto Ramirez, vice president of North America Offshore for Baker Hughes, said the goal is to develop an effective tool for the industry. “Assisting personnel to focus on the moment will ultimately help individuals identify hazards and assist them to safely complete tasks,” he said.

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