I said scaffold, not gallows.

I have a buddy – let’s call him Alf – who used to run a scaffolding company in a somewhat backward country which, like so many of them, had stumbled across a whole load of oil and gas and had little to no idea how to get it out of the ground safely.  As such, a large western oil company had been invited in and subsequently built and operated a plant in the middle of nowhere (and they’re still there).  Alf did pretty well for himself providing scaffolding services to the oil company in another part of the country, and for this reason he received a call from one of the senior managers of this remote plant.

They had just suffered a fatality, which occurred as follows.  A crew working for the maintenance contractor, a local company, had constructed a mobile scaffolding tower some 100ft high and attempted to move it with somebody on the top.  The thing collapsed, killing the guy who was still on it.  Alf told me that mobile scaffolding towers are only supposed to be used for light works (changing a lightbulb, for example), to a maximum height of 15ft or so, and never moved with somebody on it.  The root cause of this fatality was therefore a basic lack of scaffolding knowledge on the part of the people the oil company had employed to carry out their scaffolding services.  Hence the phone call to Alf.

Following the normal introductions and a brief description of what had occurred, the conversation went as follows:

Alf: Okay, I can get one of my senior scaffolders over in the next couple of days, meet with your maintenance guys, get an idea of your scope of work, and come up with a proposal of how many men you’ll need and how much scaffolding gear.

Manager: Oh.  Well, we don’t actually need you for that.

Alf: No?  Then what do you need us for?

Manager: Well…we cannot change the contractor…so instead, when they have to do a critical scaffolding job, we want one of your inspectors to come over and sign it off.

Alf: Huh?  So let’s get this straight.  You have hired an incompetent company to do your scaffolding work and they’ve killed somebody.  And rather than get rid of them – which you are either unwilling or unable to do – and bring in an outfit which knows what they’re doing, you want to carry on using this bunch of incompetents only get us to endorse what they’re doing?

Manager: Yes.

Alf: Fuck off.

Alf told me another story.

The same major oil company in the same country but on a different site had hired a local construction contractor – in some ways a direct competitor of Alf’s – to do a load of work.  But when they came to begin, they realised that their scaffolders didn’t know what they were doing.  In fact, they didn’t really have any scaffolders at all, just a bunch of folk trying to put various tubes and fittings together in a manner that would remain upright.  Alf subsequently got a phone call from a manager in the oil company which went as follows:

Manager: Hi, we’ve hired a construction company but they don’t have any scaffolders.

Alf: I’m listenin’.

Manager: Okay, so we were wondering if you offer scaffolding training courses and whether you would be able to train some of these guys?

Alf: Why the fuck would I train my competitors?

Alf told me another story.

The same major oil company in the same country but on yet another site had hired a construction contractor to carry out some work.  Alf had previously approached the company for the scaffolding element of the work, but had been told there was no requirement for his services because the construction contractor would take care of all that.  Only when the construction contractor brought all its scaffolding equipment onto the site, it was immediately condemned by one of the HSE reps who had noticed that what wasn’t bent was rusting, and none of it complied with the company standards.  A short while later, Alf got a phone call from a manager in the oil company that went as follows:

Manager: Hi, we have a construction contractor on site who is supposed to have proper scaffolding equipment but doesn’t.  What he’s brought is only suited to put around potholes to stop people falling in them, that sort of thing.

Alf: I’m listenin’.

Manager: So, we were wondering if you could rent some of your scaffolding material to them?

Alf: Well, we don’t really rent scaffolding.  We provide a scaffolding service, which includes the manpower.  We wouldn’t even cover our overhead costs in renting scaffolding, it’s only worth doing if we supply the scaffolders as well.

Manager: Sorry, we don’t need the men, just the scaffolding.  The company has the men already.

Alf: Hmmm. Now, I did tell you this would probably happen six months ago when I came to see you, didn’t I?  And you shoved me out of your office telling me that this bunch of clowns you’ve just hired would be taking care of everything.  Yes, that worked out well, didn’t it?  So, I can provide you with the full service or nothing at all, because I’m not in business to hire my equipment to competitors who haven’t bothered investing in their own.

Alf told me another story.

He was undergoing a site induction for a major oil company – not the same as the one in the previous stories – and was told that the use of homemade ladders on the construction site was strictly forbidden.  Alf leant back on his chair to look out of the window and get a better view of the homemade ladder which was running up a roof on a building fifty yards away.  Alf got the attention of the HSE rep giving the induction:

Alf: You mean homemade ladders like the one on the roof out there?  What’s that doing there, then?

HSE rep (clearly embarassed): Ah yeah…that’s pretty shit, isn’t it?  Thing is, that’s done by the local construction contractor and we don’t really have much control over them.

There are two things to note here:

1) Major oil companies routinely accept less safe, unsafe, and dangerously unsafe practices in order to comply with local content legislation.  Rarely, if ever, does a local company get ejected from a bidders list or chucked off a site for having a poor safety record.  Instead the oil company tries to patch up the competence gaps as best they can and hope nothing goes wrong, or they just ignore them – and hope nothing goes wrong.

2) Managers in major oil companies usually have no business or commercial sense, experience, or knowledge whatsoever.  There is no incentive whatsoever for a scaffolding company to sign off somebody else’s construction, train a competitor’s personnel, or rent out material to them, and the first one comes with an enormous liability risk which nobody in their right mind would entertain.  Yet in each of the first three cases, the oil company manager was genuinely annoyed that Alf wasn’t “willing to help”.  As if he’s the Red Cross.

More on both of these subjects later.

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