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?
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.
The family of this guy might have a point. Let’s take a look:
The family of a Houston-area man killed in the In Amenas terrorist attack in Algeria last year is suing operator BP for failing to protect the victim and for being dishonest about how he died.
In a lawsuit filed in Harris County, Texas, on 31 March, the family of Fred Buttaccio claims that employer BP did not provide him with wireless access that could have informed him of the ongoing siege at the gas processing plant.
Firstly, let’s get this bullshit out of the way. People who go to work on remote sites cannot expect to have wireless access, by which I assume they mean wifi. Shit, is wifi available in Algiers, even?
The supermajor also did not provide employees with an adequate escape plan in the event of a terrorist attack, which was allegedly known to be an increasing threat, according to the lawsuit.
Now this I can believe. I’ve worked for enough oil companies to know that their emergency response plans are worthless, put together only to tick a compliance box before being put back on the shelf, never to be used again. Sure, some of them are good documents in themselves, written by people who know what they’re doing, but their implementation is dependent on something rarely found in an oil company: managers who know what they’re doing, have balls, and can take tough decisions.
I was once posted to an African country where all hell was breaking loose outside the compound in a wave of political violence, and everybody was in lockdown, unable to venture out. The senior management leaped into action and formed a crisis center, but neglected to include the actual emergency response team because they were contractors and not staff. The coordination of any evacuation was instead put in the hands of an HR woman, who was more used to distributing outdated welcome packs to new arrivals and losing peoples’ expense forms. Fortunately, the army intervened and massacred a sufficient number of locals to bring the rioting to an abrupt halt.
On 16 January 2013, 32 heavily armed gunmen linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb stormed the In Amenas plant and took as hostages hundreds of foreign and local workers among the 800 personnel working at the facility.
After a three-day stand-off, Algerian forces attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying both terrorists and hostages as it left the plant and then retook the facility after a gun battle with the Islamist militants.
By the end of it, a total of 40 workers from 10 countries, including four from BP, were left dead as well as 29 of the terrorists. Five victims were employed by Statoil, who jointly owned the facility with BP and state-owned Sonatrach.
And that’s the other thing. Most people labour under the impression that when a large oil company goes into a shithole like Algeria where loyalty can be bought for a goat or two, they bring their own security team in the form of hardened ex-military types from the west. But in reality, at best they will employ one of these – and have him report to some halfwitted local – and instead rely on the local police or army. I’m sure they would prefer to do otherwise, but national governments tend not to allow foreign companies to turn up with a private army in tow, and so insist they use the local security forces even if they are known to be as effective, organised, and disciplined as the Mexican National Guard. They take this decision for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a bit of an embarassment to be running a country for 40 years post-independence and still not have a police or military that can protect a hen-house, and so they don’t admit it and insist those layabouts sleeping over there with half a uniform and their boots undone are actually Green Berets. And secondly, they often insist the oil companies pay the wages of these clowns, thus saving cash in the state coffers (or rather, allowing more to be creamed off).
Now of course the oil companies know these rent-a-mobs are ineffective at providing security against anyone except casual thieves (who they’ll beat half to death with the crudely welded, home-made butt of a Kalashnikov), but they are not prepared to have the following conversation with the oil ministry:
“Listen, dipshit. We are about to invest $4bn in this shithole of a country which you have failed to keep under control for the third decade in a row, and we are not going to put our people at risk by having that gang of cock-jockeys protecting them. Hey, we note you seem to be guarded by a bunch of Israeli mercenaries. Don’t trust your cousin then, eh? Or is it your brother? These fucking places are all the same, I lose track. Anyway, we bring our own people or you can shove your production up your ass.”
No, they don’t have that conversation. Instead, they knowingly put their staff and contractors alike into dangerous environments with inadequate security and without appraising them of the actual situation, and attempt to close the gap by useless documents such as emergency response plans, pointless writing down of laptop numbers as you go in and out of the gate, and blatant lies. Hence we have the Algerian army (“Three Weeks Without a Mutiny!” displayed proudly above their barrack gates) protecting the Amenas facility:
Security measures in place at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria were not adequate to repel a deadly terror attack and project partners relied too heavily on the country’s armed forces that ultimately failed to prevent the assault, according to an investigation report released by Statoil.
No shit! And even running away would have been better than making matters a whole lot worse:
The brother of a hostage who escaped unharmed from Islamist militants in Algeria on Thursday has described to reporters how the Algerian army bombed four jeeps carrying captives and likely killed many of them.Steven McFaul, the sole Irishman among dozens of Western and local captives seized by militants at the In Amenas gas plant on Wednesday, reportedly told his family that he survived because was in the only one of five jeeps not bombed, according to a Reuters report.The news wire quoted his brother Brian McFaul as saying that five jeeps were moving hostages from one part of the compound when they were intercepted by the Algerian army.“The army bombed four out of five of the trucks and four of them were destroyed,” Brian McFaul told Reuters.
Worse for the hostages, at any rate. One of the things the oil companies won’t tell you is that the security forces in a lot of these countries are happy to sacrifice hostages, both local and foreign, in order to regain control of a situation and kill the terrorists.
Fortunately, following the incident the Algerians quickly realised they lacked the competence to protect their own oilfields and the people working on them and allowed the operators to bring in their own security. Oh, hang, that’s wrong. They didn’t:
The starting point will, of course, be a major security overhaul. This could even extend to breaking the nationalistic taboo, restated in Algiers only this week, against the use of foreign security companies.
Did any of the oil companies challenge this? Did they threaten to pull out? Or did they meekly accept that they need to keep their production rates up to satisfy the shareholders, and so put the safety of their people right back into the hands of those who had so spectacularly failed previously? Tough questions, those.
At least Statoil, prompted by the Norwegian unions, launched an enquiry (pdf) after the attack. BP – if Wikipedia is to be believed, and I found no reference to one on the BP website – didn’t even bother. I’d not be surprised if BP’s first response was to send the job descriptions of the deceased to a recruitment company asking when replacements could be found and how much money they were expecting.
A statement from the family said: “Fredd Buttaccio was a wonderful husband, brother, father and son… He trusted BP to protect him. BP did not.”
The fact is, Fredd Buttaccio should not have trusted BP to protect him: once they had agreed to go into what everyone knew was a high-risk area relying on the Algerian army and police for security, they were in no position to do so. Shame they never mentioned this in the job interview, but BP is by no means alone in this.
At the time the attack happened I was working for an oil company not a million miles from Algeria in a high-risk area, and if our management took heed of the events in Amenas and overhauled the manner in which they provide for our security, then this was not apparent by the presence of the same snoozing halfwits we’d seen before the incident. No doubt they too were more concerned about offending the sensibilities of people who couldn’t secure a shithouse door, never mind an oilfield.