Dissertation: Safety, Risk and Trust in the Offshore Petroleum Industry

This doctoral dissertation deals with the development of the safety level of Norwegian offshore activities during the period 2001 to 2005, and includes a study of employees on the Norwegian and UK shelves during 2007-2008.

On 24 January, Jorunn Elise Tharaldsen, now employed by the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway (PSA), defended her dissertation at the University of Stavanger (Norway).

About the dissertation
The data were collected from questionnaires and interviews with offshore employees.
 
The main issues relate to e.g. establishment of reliable measurement indicators for safety climate and risk perception. The dynamic between trust, distrust and safety, cultural differences between Norwegian and UK employees, and theoretical reflections related to behaviour and culture-based approaches to safety have also been examined. The issues are explored further in four internationally published articles.

The results show that platform affiliation plays a crucial role for the employees’ attitudes regarding safety, risk and trust. Platforms with positive safety climate assessments generally have lower risk assessments and fewer work accidents.
 
Close  relations of trust play a positive role for safety, while an excessive degree of trust is considered to be very destructive on both shelves.
 
Tailored safety measures
The dissertation shows that safety and risk are e.g. dependent on where you work, what you do, your location in the supplier chain and which type of facility you work on.

To achieve the best possible effects of the HSE work, the efforts should therefore be very goal-oriented or “tailored” to the groups of employees where an elevated safety level is desired. This applies both in the cases where a safer work environment is desired as well as where there is a need to reduce the risk of major accidents.

Goal-oriented efforts require good knowledge of the groups you will work with, as well as relevant data regarding which risks different groups are exposed to.

Everyone should have a healthy dose of scepticism
The model development and reflections related to the dynamic between trust, distrust and safety are new, even though the debate surrounding the limitations of trust is not. The dissertation advocates looking at trust and distrust as parallel processes and recommends moving away from a “moral” interpretation of these terms.
 
Trust is not necessarily always positive, and distrust – in the context of scepticism or functional control – can be positive. This means that, as regards safety, you should pay particular attention to the risky aspects of trust and the positive aspects of functional distrust.

The findings and reflections surrounding the limitations of trust and the potentially positive aspects of distrust emphasise the need for balance.
 
Maintaining a high safety level requires organisations or authorities to ensure that the members of the industry are trained to implement both functional trust and distrust – preferably in the form of institutionalised control.

Promoting functional trust could e.g. include developing systems or relationships where you can trust someone or something,  but still carry out and be able to handle verification.

On the other hand, being able to practice functional distrust requires that the organisation or person organises itself based on a precautionary principle or by continuously handling situations and processes with a functional suspicion or healthy scepticism in the back of your mind.

Part of a larger research project
The dissertation is just one piece of the already ongoing international research related to safety climate and safety culture. The doctoral work confirms the value of measuring and following development of the safety level over time, both at an organisation and industry level, as well as the fact that data from questionnaires can constitute a reliable source in such measurements.

The doctoral work is financed by the Research Council of Norway, Seawell, International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS) and the University of Stavanger.
 
Contact person in the PSA Norway:
Jorunn Tharaldsen
E-mail: Jorunn-Elise.Tharaldsen@ptil.no