Abstract for: The barrier-based system for major accident prevention: a system dynamics analysis

Only a few months apart, two offshore oilwell blowouts in different parts of the world resulted in controversy about the safety of offshore oil and gas drilling. Both led to formal enquiries. They were also eerily similar in their technical causes. The key difference between the two events, (the Montara blowout in the Timor Sea, Australia and the Deepwater Horizon incident in the US Gulf of Mexico) was one of consequence. By chance, the Australian incident had fewer immediate consequences; there was no loss of life and apparently less damage to the environment. This paper applies systems thinking and system dynamics to explore the barrier-based system of major incident management, the so-called “Swiss cheese” model of Reason (1997). We highlight counterintuitive features inherent to the system. We find that the number of barriers alone does not determine the effectiveness of the safety management system. Proper monitoring and understanding are vital. We also examine the impact of management and reporting focus. These insights lead us to make specific recommendations on the design and implementation of the safety management systems used by the oil and gas industry as a key pillar of their incident prevention policies.