Opinion: Which is safer, oil and gas or offshore wind? It’s complicated

The safety records of the offshore wind sector and the oil and gas industry are often compared, but what do we mean by safe or safer, and what do we hope to achieve by making such comparisons?

Is the oil and gas industry safer than offshore wind? The answer is more complicated than you think, argues Rakesh Maharaj

Most attempts to compare safety in oil and gas extraction with offshore wind take a very traditional approach.

They focus on hazard profile, risk management capability and statistical indicators of people being safe, such as whether there are more or fewer incidents.

But safety is not the absence of accidents or incidents. Rather, it’s the presence of capacity and capability.

So the real question is not how do the statistics compare, it’s what are the factors within organisations that influence organisational capability and capacity?

Why compare?

We also need to ask ourselves why we are drawing a comparison between these two quite different sectors. What is our goal?

One objective could be to try and understand the likely gaps in safety in the rapidly developing offshore wind industry by learning some lessons from an experienced, mature, high-hazard sector.

But if we do identify a gap and then try simply to transfer whatever appears to be done better elsewhere, that is unlikely to prove useful or effective.

This is because we’re trying to compare industries at opposite ends of the market maturity cycle, with different skillsets, contracting models and hazard profiles. And there are inherent dangers in doing that.

Anyone who has ever seen a control room on an oil platform immediately recognises the fundamental differences between oil and gas and renewables in terms of organisational capacity. You can’t just apply what works in one to the other.

Meeting the challenge

The more important question for offshore wind is whether existing organisational capacity and capability can meet the growing operational demand, or do we have an imbalance?

We need to be thinking about how we measure operational demand in our organisations. And, alongside this, how we better understand the factors that influence operational demand and organisational capacity.

In a sector developing at breakneck speed, where technologies are constantly moving forward, operational demand will always be drawing ahead of capacity.

So the challenge, if we want to get safety right, is always to recognise and understand the gap between operational demand and organisational capacity, and manage it effectively so that it doesn't get to the point where it presents an intolerable risk.

Organisational learning strategies

Organisational capacity in terms of people is clearly not just about increasing headcount; it's the ability for people to collectively approach each situation critically and thoughtfully, so that, at a decentralised level, they can make decisions in an adaptive and resilient way.

Sometimes that means they might challenge poorly written procedures or refuse to do something unless X, Y and Z is in place. And then the leadership team must have confidence in local teams’ decisions.

For intent-based leadership to work in high-growth renewables, we need clear organisational learning strategies to ensure people on the ground attain this resilience and ability to adapt. But such strategies are often conspicuous by their absence.

By adopting pull-based learning strategies that incorporate digitised decision-making support, we can give people across the organisation the necessary competence and confidence to work effectively and safely.

Changing mindsets

When comparing oil and gas with renewables, people often ask whether more regulation is the answer.

For example, do we need more bespoke regulatory requirements for offshore wind, perhaps along the lines of the UK regime for offshore oil and gas.

So, is more regulation the answer? Probably not, because the last thing offshore wind needs is another barrier – such as a safety case requirement – to getting the industry growing at the rate necessary to achieve net zero.

We don't need more regulation. What we need is a mindset-change amongst leadership, so that leaders recognise the need to invest in their organisational capacity to close that rapidly growing demand/capacity gap.

To do that, we need to take advantage of the eight to 10 year period between the point at which project development starts and when we start construction offshore.

This should allow organisations sufficient time to recognise and reduce the potential gap by identifying risk and designing it out, thereby optimising project delivery and asset operations.

Decisions during the development phase are critical to success. Intervening early allows us to take risk out of the system at the beginning, instead of bearing the costs of managing it later.

Upfront risk mitigation

Above all, we need renewable organisations that are really invested in the long term lifespan of their assets, where they understand the risks upfront and are incorporating measures for mitigating those risks throughout the project and asset lifecycle.

It’s good to have growth expectations and to be driving forward with new technologies.

We shouldn't be looking to stymie growth, but we need to fundamentally adjust the way we run our organisations to meet this new dynamic.

And the failure of leaders to make that mindset-shift poses the biggest risk to the sector today.

Rakesh Maharaj is the founder of safety & training organization ARMSA Academy