The Norwegian Oil and Gas Association went high into Norway’s south-western mountains to explain why thinking along new lines about risk is important.
Aerial perspective on risk
“I’ve always wanted to stand on Kjeragbolten,” says the main character in a new film on risk from the petroleum industry organisation. “It must be a fantastic feeling. A kick.”
About 1 000 metres above sea level at the innermost end of the Lyse Fjord near Stavanger, this unnamed person faces a difficult choice. Should he step out onto Kjeragbolten?
This big boulder, five cubic metres in size, has become stuck fast in a deep and narrow crevasse. Posing on the rock has become a test of manhood for many.
It would undoubtedly provide a great photograph. But there is a sheer drop on either side. A slip would mean certain death. He also knows that several thousand people have made the little hop.
“But how dangerous is this actually?” he asks himself in the film. “How big is the risk?”
An expert appears to help him work it out. He notes that nobody has ever fallen from Kjeragbolten, and puts the risk of this happening at a minute 0.000000001 per cent.
“Driving a car, for example, is much more dangerous,” the expert concludes. “Standing on Kjeragbolten is safe.”
But one thing is lacking from this confident analysis – the level of uncertainty.
“The attention being given to uncertainty – or level of knowledge – and its effect on risk analysis, assessment and management – has increased in recent years,” says Bodil Sophia Krohn.
She is head of risk management at Norwegian Oil and Gas, which has been running its own project in this area over the past two years.
The aim has been to acquire a wider perspective on risk and on how the industry can understand, assess and manage the threat of major accidents.
“A good grasp of risk is fundamental for safety work,” Krohn observes. “That’s the basis for everything we do. We must improve learning and experience transfer, and thereby contribute to enhancing knowledge which can reduce major accident risk.
“Developing better models and tools for cost-effective risk analyses is an overall objective for the project.”
The Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico during 2015 is among the incidents which have focused attention on risk management and on how greater emphasis can be given to uncertainty and the level of knowledge.
Uncertainty is crucial for risk understanding in all relevant regulations and standards. The 2009 international ISO 31000 standard for risk management, for example, emphasises that uncertainty cannot be avoided.
A precise definition of the risk concept has now been incorporated in Norway’s petroleum regulations. The guidelines to the framework HSE regulations state: “Risk means the consequences of the activities, with associated uncertainty”.
“Knowledge and uncertainty are important aspects of risk, but we need a more practical approach to the way we’re going to work with this,” says Krohn.
“How can these elements be handled?” she asks. “How can we integrate this in risk analyses and how is the industry to understand the new risk definition?
“And what does the change mean in purely practical terms? These are questions and issues we’re trying to come up with answers to.”
The Norwegian Oil and Gas project has sought support from such sources as Terje Aven, professor of risk analysis and management at the University of Stavanger.
A detailed report on the subject is now nearing completion, and two working seminars have been staged for the petroleum industry during the spring.
Focused on what the new definition means for work on risk, one of these sessions addressed quantitative risk analyses while the other looked at safe job analysis (SJA).
Back in the Kjerag film, the main character is unconvinced that average probability is the only factor which should count when assessing the risk of stepping onto the rock.
When he thinks about it, many other factors could affect the outcome of such a daredevil feat – from wind and weather, with sudden gusts, to his mental balance and the state of his shoes.
“You talked only about low probability,” he tells the expert. “But you knew far too little about conditions up there. You didn’t allow for the possibility that something surprising could happen. Your analysis didn’t give us the full picture. It provides a false sense of security.”
“The film explains in a simple way that you can’t base risk management solely on figures and probability,” says Krohn. “Uncertainty and level of knowledge must be taken into account.”
Efforts to produce a new and expanded perspective on risk are set to continue, she reports, and says that feedback from the industry has been good.
“We see that this project is necessary, and are working now on follow-up proposals. These include looking at risk analyses – how they can be improved and become more cost-effective.”
Work by the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association to establish an expanded perspective on risk has received a thumbs-up from the PSA.
“We’ve maintained for years that the industry has had problems in handling and assessing risk, partly because uncertainty hasn’t been properly incorporated,” says Bjørnar Heide.
A key player in the PSA’s work on risk analysis and management, he says it is accordingly pleased that the industry has joined forces on this project and that the results have been presented in such an easy-to-understand way.
“We feel the practical solutions proposed can contribute to much better risk management, so that the requirements in the regulations get met to a greater extent than they are today.
“It’s accordingly important that the various sides of the industry adopt the knowledge and methods developed by the project in an unprejudiced manner.”