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Lessons from the Deepwater Horizon Continue to Resonate for EHS Professionals

Scott Gaddis

The Deepwater Horizon disaster holds important lessons for organizations of any size and in any industry.

By Scott Gaddis and Graham Freeman

The Deepwater Horizon disaster left an indelible mark, not only on the families of the victims and the Gulf of Mexico where it occurred, but also on the field of health and safety.

The images and footage of the massive oil rig engulfed in flames and slipping under the water are both emotionally powerful and a searing indictment of the mechanical and organizational failures that led to the tragedy.

The mechanical failures at the heart of the explosion are well-documented. A surge of hydrocarbons overwhelmed the malfunctioning blowout preventer (BOP) and travelled 18,000 feet to the rig, where they ignited and caused an untamable fire that killed 11 workers and injured 16 more. The open well dispersed approximately 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the next three months, leading to one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

In 2013, a federal judge accepted the plea agreement reached between the U.S. Department of Justice and BP Exploration and Production Inc. in which BP agreed to plead guilty to felony manslaughter, environmental crimes and obstruction of Congress and pay a record $4 billion in criminal fines and penalties for conduct leading to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. By 2017, British Petroleum (BP) already had spent approximately $62 billion working to mitigate the impact of the disaster, and the coastal communities around the Gulf are still trying to recover from the economic effects on tourism and employment.

The disaster is a searing indictment of the organizational failures that led to it. While dramatic disasters such as this might give the impression of having easily identifiable root causes, the truth is that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was the result of a long-term aggregation of errors, ignorance, and risk that infected the organizational culture at every level.

Behind the compelling drama of the mechanical failure narrative there are important lessons every organization can learn from the safety culture failures that led to them. The Deepwater Horizon disaster was, first and foremost, a failure of management in which errors, ignorance and risk were allowed to aggregate in the complex system over time until they culminated in a tragic cataclysm. While the story of the failure of the blowout preventor and explosion makes for dramatic storytelling, it is the longer and subtler story of organizational failure that holds the fundamental lesson for the safety professional.

The lessons from the disaster are ones that every organization can learn. You don't have to be an international petroleum company to get valuable insight into the importance of organizational culture and the impact of neglecting safety and risk. 

In the new Intelex Insight Report, The Deepwater Horizon: Learnings from a Large-Scale Disaster, health and safety leader Scott Gaddis summarizes what went wrong in the organizational culture that led to the disaster, how BP could have avoided those mistakes, and what every organization can learn from them. The report examines:

  • How prioritizing cost-cutting at the expense of safety can lead to disaster
  • How increasing automation can put unreasonable burdens on human workers
  • Why organizational learning is pivotal for every organization, and
  • How safety culture is a responsibility that begins with organizational leadership.


About the Authors:

Scott Gaddis leads the integration of the Intelex EHSQ Alliance in thought leadership and building partnerships with top influencers in EHS, working with professionals across the globe to deliver a platform for sharing information and collectively driving solutions that mitigate workplace loss. Scott has more than 25 years in EHS leadership experience in heavy manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and packaging. Before joining Intelex, Scott served as Vice President, EHS for Coveris High Performance Packaging, Executive Director of EHS at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Global Leader for Occupational Safety and Health at Kimberly-Clark Corp.

Graham Freeman is a content writer and editor at Intelex Technologies in Toronto, where he writes on topics relating to quality management.




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March 18, 2019 @ 09:10 AM EDT Energy - Oil and Gas, Manufacturing, Metals and Mining, Chemical Environment, Health & Safety, Operations, Risk Management

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Erik Reutling's picture
Erik Reutling

Given my understanding of events and experience in this industry I'm more inclined to think this was an issue of compliance vs. safety or a lack there of. All the safety precautions in the world won't help your outcome if one fails to think and comply with the requirements of the operation.

March 20, 2019 @ 09:28 AM EDT