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Published: 13th Oct 2015

Lifting operations are safety critical, whether conducted offshore or at an onshore work site, and are the most common cause of incidents.

The number of variables that can affect any lift – the lifting team, the load and the environment – mean that potential risks are higher than many other daily operational activities. With this in mind, it’s vital to understand the importance of maintaining a robust and structured approach to competence assurance for safety critical roles.

Competence can be defined as a combination of training, skills, experience, knowledge and behaviour, appropriately applied by an individual to enable them to consistently perform a task safely and to a defined standard. In short – show what you know.

It is important to recognise that training alone is not sufficient to confirm an individual as competent. A combination of factors, including knowledge and skills, as well as behaviour and attitude in the workplace, all contribute to safe and effective performance of duties.

The following factors are critical in assuring the competence of workers in safety critical roles:

1.  Development programmes must be structured to ensure that standards for progression are established and progression is measurable and evidence based.

2.  Standards of competent performance need to be clearly defined so that individuals understand what is expected of them, and that any assessment can be undertaken against the specific criteria.

3.  Consistent performance to defined standards is the key. It’s insufficient to take one example of performance as evidence of competence, as we need to be assured that individuals can consistently perform to the required standard. We also need to ensure that they can react appropriately in changing circumstances, which can be an acute risk factor for safety critical roles.

4.  Continuous assessment of competence is at the heart of the truly competent workforce. It is not just the initial assurance of competence that underpins safe and effective operations. Reassessment of competence is an important factor to confirm ongoing suitability of the individual in role and central to truly assuring competence in lifting operations.

Ensuring the safety of people and the integrity of the equipment they are working on should always be at the heart of operations. Excellent core values to work by are: • HSEQ • People • Integrity • Efficiency • Trust

As a result of lessons learned from incidents such as the Macondo blow out in the Gulf of Mexico, Montara off the shores of Western Australia and Piper Alpha in the UK, there is a sharp focus on the criticality of workforce competence in preventing major accidents.

In each case, the authorities have been clear that the responsibility sits squarely with the employer to ensure all their staff members are competent and capable of effectively performing their assigned role to the required standard.

The effects of failing to maintain the necessary level of competence have proved devastating to those involved in subsequent and potentially preventable incidents in terms of human loss, as well as the ongoing financial and reputational repercussions.

Competent performance of lifting operations depends on the collective competence of the team, not just the individual directly controlling the lift. In the offshore environment, this extends to anyone whose actions could impact upon the effective performance of the task including banksmen and slingers, supervisors, riggers, and deck hands.

While the crane operator may have immediate control of the load, clear communication and trust in the skills and capabilities of other team members is essential for consistent performance. The operator has to trust that his colleagues can guide him to safely land the load and this requires all involved to be completely reliable.

Only by understanding competencies required by each team member, supporting the development of required competencies in a structured manner and evaluating them against the requirements for their role, can we effectively mitigate against the risks of future incidents.

Best approach

So how should we approach training and competence assessment for health and safety critical roles? We believe it’s essential to identify the safety critical activities as a starting point for both the development of the operator or technician, and the assessment of their competence for the assigned role.

Once safety critical activities have been determined, standards of performance can be defined and captured. This allows individuals and groups to be assessed against clear criteria to evaluate their current level of competence and to identify any collective or individual development needs.

Learning outcomes based upon the required standards of competence form the basis for the development of our practical and theoretical training programmes. Completion of the training programme, followed by a period of consolidation in the workplace provides a supported route to achieving and demonstrating the required competency level by combining training, behaviour, experience and knowledge.

There are obvious challenges in supporting the development of competent performance in the work environment. For example, it’s not always possible to effectively recreate an emergency situation in the offshore environment, but this is often the truest test of an individual’s competence – how do they perform when faced with non-routine operations?

One solution is to realistically replicate the situation on a crane simulator. This provides the opportunity to put a crane operator in a position where they are dealing with realistic worst case scenarios without putting themselves or others in a position of risk.

Even with successful implementation of the training and development programme, it’s important to have a framework in place to periodically reassess competence to ensure that standards are maintained and are not eroded over time.

Reassessment of competence is an opportunity not only to confirm and evidence ongoing competence, but to identify development opportunities. Reassessment should be considered in terms of the safety criticality of the individual’s role and related activities, as well as frequency of exposure to the specific task or equipment. With regard to crane operations, two yearly reassessment of competence is recognised as industry best practice.

Regional challenges

There are often variances in competence requirements due to environmental or operational differences according to geographic location. In the Middle East, as an example, the generally calmer waters offshore can mean that challenges associated with harsh and extreme types of weather that can occur in other regions like the UKCS are lessened and standard training programmes should be tailored to ensure suitability for the local workforce.

Cultural factors can have a significant and sometimes unanticipated impact upon safety and effective delivery of training and assessment. As an example, an individual in a culture where respect for hierarchy is considered to be of high importance may find it particularly challenging to speak up if they saw a more senior staff member not following the correct procedures.

When working with different cultures, always ensure that cultural preferences are identified and recognised, and important messages with regard to safe and competent performance are tailored to the relevant audience. Do not compromise on your responsibility to deliver a clear message regarding safety and personal accountability. It needs to be framed in a way that resonates with those listening if it is to be effective – a one size fits all approach is unlikely to succeed in a global marketplace.

When working with new clients try to avoid any potential for miscommunication or misinterpretation by tailoring your approach as far as possible to ensure best fit.

Having agreed the roles to be included in the programme, then look at each organisation’s existing processes to see what is in place and how any client specific requirements can be incorporated into the training or assessment practices.

Having identified the relevant roles as well as any client specific requirements, existing workforce competence can be evaluated against defined performance standards to identify a baseline from which to draw up a plan that will provide a pathway to support individuals to reach the desired competence levels.

This programme of progression takes into account that individuals will have varying degrees of skills and experience, with some already further along the competence path than others. Regardless of the starting point, being able to deliver the best possible process to the client that delivers results for all involved is the ultimate goal.

Once formal training and safety coaching programmes have taken place, a competence assessment will give the candidate an opportunity to demonstrate they can carry out lifting operations to pre-agreed standards. For offshore crane operations, the initial competence assessment is conducted at the workplace with subsequent reassessments carried out on a crane simulator.

Summary

So, regardless of where you are in the world, there is a reason for everyone in our industry to continue to focus efforts on assuring workforce competence to maximise safety and efficiency.

It’s essential to understand and define the performance standards for safety critical roles – to know the key capabilities for each role and also to consider which activities could cause the greatest harm if they are not performed correctly. Understanding the areas of risk provides a firm foundation on which to develop a structured training and assessment programme that focuses on equipping the individuals with the skills, knowledge, behaviour and experience to perform effectively and also manage change.

It is also essential to consider requirements for reassessment to confirm the ongoing competence of the workforce. As technology changes, new work practices are introduced and people become familiar with tasks and activities to the point that they become complacent, competence levels can change. An individual assessed as competent six years ago is not necessarily still able to perform to the same standard and it is important, therefore, to factor reassessment into competence assurance programmes to solidly evidence this ongoing capability.

In today’s climate it's vital to match client needs to acceptable standards. It is important to ensure that solutions are cost effective for the client without deviating from the core purpose of truly assuring the competence of the client workforce. Work closely with clients to find a tailored solution that suits their pocket without deviating from the high standards to which we should all adhere.

Operators are very aware that, when working offshore, a lift that goes wrong is more than likely going to hit them hard. Even if they are fortunate and no-one is hurt, the damage to the platform can have significant financial impact, environmental consequences and cause reputational damage.

For oil and gas operators, continued focus on lifting operations competence promotes a strong safety culture in the workforce. The results of such a commitment will help reduce the frequency and severity of incidents and ultimately deliver bottom line improvement.

Published: 13th Oct 2015 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Susan Fraser