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What's next for well control training?

Have changes to well control training gone far enough to prevent another Macondo-sized blow out? Phil Burge, Aberdeen Drilling School, suggests ways in which essential technical training could be enhanced to improve results still further
What's next for well control training?

Since the Montara and Macondo blow-outs, formal accredited well control training has undergone major changes, many of which are encapsulated in the IOGP report 476 of 2012 – Recommended Enhancements to Well-control Training, Examination and Certification. But while the recommendations and the updated training syllabuses introduced by both the IWCF and the IADC are unarguably positive changes for the industry, it is still worth asking whether the new training regime goes far enough.

Both Montara and Macondo prompted plenty of informative and enlightening investigations and reports. In the case of Macondo, the evidence strongly suggests that the cause was not incompetence or even ordinarily competent people making incompetent decisions. Everyone on board the Deepwater Horizon was trying to make a sound decision based on the information they had at the time.

As with many other industrial accidents, Macondo was actually caused by the complex interactions between various people working within an organisation. In other words, the accident was largely the result of the ‘human factor’ and not a lack of technical skill or ability. Often designated or even dismissed as ‘soft skills’, these non-technical ‘human factors’ can include important aptitudes such as situational awareness, leadership, communication and decision making.

Reports indicate that instead of individuals using these soft skills when making decisions, incidents of cognitive bias and group-think (to use the language of psychologists) lead to less-than-optimal decision making. When this happens, teams tend to be directed towards a decision because the majority are in agreement, which makes it difficult for the contrarian view to be heard and understood. These kind of cognitive biases also create a tendency for individuals and groups to over-commit to a plan regardless of any new information that suggests it will no longer work.

All humans are prone to these biases in thinking. However, effective training can give individuals and teams the ability to recognise that a decision may be subject to such a bias, and to put in place mechanisms to mitigate against it.

Training that includes this range of non-technical skills is now commonplace in the airline industry, the military, in surgical teams and within industries where the risk of failure or the consequences of failure are high. But it is not covered in depth by conventional well control training. Post-Macondo reports suggest that it is time the drilling industry embraced the importance of human factors, and embedded them into well control and other safety- and performance-related training.

The second area to consider is team-based training. Drill crews rarely make or enact decisions in isolation. Instead a team contributes information, discusses and interprets it, and then reaches a decision – which is then implemented after a team briefing and discussion on risk.

This is normally achieved through mechanisms such as written procedures and toolbox talks. However, team behaviour and performance is subject to the same human factors as individual behaviour. This aspect of team-based training is not yet included in any standard accredited well control training course – although the IOGP recommends that it be adopted widely. Nonetheless, interest in team-based training is on the rise. Some of the larger drilling contractors and operating companies with their own in-house well-control training programmes have adopted team-based training.

There are various formats for team-based training, but underpinning them all are realistic drilling and well-control scenarios that are carried out on a rig floor scale simulator. In this type of training, team members are assigned specific roles and responsibilities, and the team is given a scenario briefing document. At this point, the team has to decide on the actions to take, agree on procedures and actions in the event of non-conformance, and then run the scenario. The team is assessed, as are individual members, on technical and non-technical skills. In some cases, behavioural psychologists work with the training provider to observe and give feedback on individual and team behaviours.

The combination of a challenging well control scenario and the authenticity of the rig-floor drilling simulator recreates the conditions experienced at the rig site. Additional stress can be added to the scenario as required.

The third area to consider is how training is motivated and rewarded. Research has shown that people’s ability to retain knowledge and competency largely depends on the learning method and is then reinforced through practice. The  challenge for well control training is that, although the consequences of a serious event in somewhere like the North Sea are severe, the likelihood of it happening is very low – so there is, ironically, limited scope for retaining or applying the training on the rig site.

Research on learning retention also shows that many traditional teaching methods are largely ineffective. The standard lecture or presentation typically leads to a retention rate of approximately ten per cent, and is followed by a rapid decline after two or three months. Reading a manual is more effective!

In contrast to passive learning, it is practice and application that deliver the most successful learning outcomes. For example, when a simulator is used in conjunction with students teaching each other, retention rates can reach 90 per cent.

As defined by IOGP 476, well control training and assessment today largely emphasise the classic classroom face-to-face instruction technique followed by an end-of-course exam. But neither is conducive to effective learning and knowledge retention.

The industry has evolved to the point where the focus is on exam success rather than understanding and retention. Students require an examination pass to remain in employment, instructors use examination pass rates and average marks as a guide to their performance and capabilities, and training providers are tempted to use pass rates and average marks as a proxy for quality of training and experience.

Despite current financial pressures, there is widespread recognition that improved well-control training that leads to better understanding, retention and application of knowledge is needed. It is also understood that non-technical skills and team-based scenario methods on a rig-floor simulator are also necessary.

However, a movement towards this type of training requires a radical rethink in, among other things, the underlying motivation of students, the role of the instructor, the syllabus, the link between formal training and continuous training, and competency assessments at the rig site.

This is a substantial challenge given the commercial realities of today’s market place. Even though the probability of a serious well control incident is low, the consequences to the industry could be enormous. Perhaps it is time to think in terms of terms of potential losses rather than the actual costs of well control training.

Box-out from Petroplan

Global oil and gas recruitment specialist, Petroplan, welcomes the suggestion from Aberdeen Drilling School that more focus should be given to the softer skills that impact safety in well control, such as situational awareness, team-based skills and leadership.

As a recruiter, we are committed to verifying the qualifications of candidates who apply for roles in the oil and gas industry. However, those professionals who can demonstrate their commitment to ongoing training, even in a contract position, can provide further assurance to employers that they will fit into a new placement quickly and are ready to apply their learnings in the classroom to their work in the field.

Providing more hands-on training via team-based learning on tools such as drilling simulators is a great way to measure expertise, in addition to formal examinations. We welcome any changes in training that keep the information learned in the classroom ‘fresh’ and place a greater focus on the human behavioural factors involved in communication and decision-making.

It is the industry’s responsibility to keep contractors and permanent staff safe during their placements, and we believe companies who encourage learning to be reinforced in practice will be more attractive to the talent pool. This elevated reputation will ultimately result in these employers being better able to attract and retain top-tier candidates who are motivated by working in a safe and supportive environment, especially when demand rises and the skills shortage returns.

Images from Aberdeen Drilling School.

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