UND researchers tapped to help improve oil-and-gas safety in Gulf of Mexico

Aerospace, Petroleum Engineering receive $755,000 to study whether aviation safety concepts work for offshore drilling

Daniel Kwasi Adjekum, assistant professor of aviation, is the principal investigator on a prestigious grant from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine examining the safety culture of the offshore drilling industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

“Better safe than sorry” is an overused credo in life. But in the unforgiving worlds of aviation and oil-and-gas exploration, it can be the difference between life and death.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recognizes this reality and is betting that proven successes in one of those industries — aviation — can be applied to the other, specifically on offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

And the Academies has turned to the University of North Dakota, which has expertise in both disciplines, for what could be a first-of-a-kind study.

The Academies announced late last week that Daniel Kwasi Adjekum, an assistant professor of aviation in the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, has been awarded $755,000 to support research as part of a larger $7.25-million Gulf research program. The initiative aims to develop an improved culture of safety in the oil and gas industry.

Adjekum, an internationally respected aerospace researcher, is uniquely qualified to transfer knowledge and skills from the aviation domain to oil and gas work. He has published extensively on safety culture in aviation and is a highly sought source on the topic for major media networks.

Unique nature

With UND Continental Resources Distinguished Professor of Petroleum Engineering Vamegh Rasouli as a co-principal investigator, the UND research team represents a strong interdisciplinary partnership between aerospace and engineering. The study will also be conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Vamegh Rasouli

“Borrowing the ideas from the aviation industry, where the safety measures are of the highest standards, and considering their applications in oil and gas, is the unique nature of this study,” Rasouli said. “We believe it is one of the first of such studies worldwide.”

According to the Academies, oil and gas production in deepwater environments are inherently hazardous activities that can fail in complex, catastrophic ways. It points to the tragic “Deepwater Horizon” explosion in the Gulf of Mexico 10 years ago and the 87-day oil spill that ensued.

While many factors led to the disaster, several reports issued in the aftermath emphasized the need for an improved safety culture within the offshore oil and gas industry.

UND’s Adjekum has more than 22 years of experience in aviation and occupational health safety, including service as head of safety in the Ghanaian Air Force and a certifying expert for occupational health and safety professionals in the United States and around the world. His research in the Gulf of Mexico will require an understanding of aerospace, mining, oil and gas, construction and maritime operations to determine what best practices oil and gas can adapt from other high-risk industries.

“It has generally been accepted that high risk is inherent in most high-reliability organizations, and the management patterns to ensure an acceptable level of safety have similar underlying principles,” Adjekum said.

Non-punitive actions

In essence, Adjekum’s objective is apply tenets of the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) — a widely accepted safety reporting system — to the oil and gas industry. In the process, he will assess the opinions of more than 1,500 industry experts and personnel through focus groups, interviews and surveys. The proposed system is called the Offshore Safety Action Program.

Since 2002, the Aviation Safety Action Program has been among the most successful safety programs in the aviation industry, according to Adjekum. ASAP encourages air carriers and repair station employees to voluntarily report errors that may be critical to identifying potential precursors to accidents.

“Under ASAP, safety issues are resolved through non-punitive corrective action, rather than through punishment or discipline,” Adjekum said. “It provides unique enforcement-related incentives and other provisions to employees who submit ‘near-miss’ or potential violation reports.”

Rasouli, who leads the UND Petroleum Engineering division, said a solid safety workflow is important to the oil and gas operators involved in offshore operations. His connections to the offshore oil and gas operators in the Gulf region will be invaluable for collecting data and informing the study.

“In the oil-and-gas industry, safety is the first thing that all companies are concerned about,” he said. “Any incident that happens, due to safety oversights, can cause significant damage to the reputations of operators, which directly impacts their businesses and revenues long term.”

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