SPE-170824-MS Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as a Catalyst for Culture Change

Howard J Duhon (GATE Inc) | Jorge Garduno (GATE, Inc)


Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for oil and gas production facilities are typically written by teams of subject matter experts including at least process engineers and experienced operators.  The team is tasked with identifying the most effective ways to operate the facility (based on safety, environmental protection and economic measures).  Operating the facility consistently in accordance with the SOPs should yield considerable benefits.

Yet, despite their obvious importance, often relatively little effort goes into SOP development and use.

SOPs are frequently developed late in the project, after the design is completed and construction is well underway.  They may be used for little other than operator training.  Following the initial facility startup, they may even end up on a shelf collecting dust.  In this environment SOPs have little influence on either the design or the operation of the facility. 

SOPs however could be so much more.  They can be an integral part of the design process and a catalyst for culture change in the industry.  Generated early enough they can be a powerful tool for finding and correcting operability issues in the design.  Improving the design in this manner should yield a facility that is easier to operate and inherently safer.  Effective SOPs that are actually used in the field could have a significant further impact on process safety.   

This paper suggests methods for generating SOPs that accomplish the dual goals of improved design and improved, safer operation.  The approach involves writing preliminary procedures (high-level and mid-level) much earlier in the design process and maturing the procedures along with the design.   Another important feature is that the final procedures are simpler, easier to use, easier to scan and less likely to be misinterpreted.

This paper will also provide background information to understand how we have arrived at this method for procedure writing as well as provide several key examples of learnings from previous projects.

Changing Safety Culture

When US Airways Flight-1549 hit a flock of geese and lost power, Co-pilot Skiles reached for the SOPs.  From the moment of the impact until the plane landed in the Hudson River, he diligently and rapidly applied procedures to try to restart the engines. 

The airline industry has dramatically decreased accident frequency and impact by creating a culture of following procedures, typically in the form of checklists.  They do this for normal events – takeoff and landings – and in response to emergencies.

The Oil and Gas industry has changed dramatically in the recent past and is currently heading to being a more safety-driven and safety-oriented industry as compared to how it was say even 5 years ago prior to the Macondo Blowout.  Even with that said however, it is hard to imagine ever having such devotion to SOPs in the oil and gas industry, but it is something we should strive for.  Effective SOPs that are diligently used by operators may be the driver for the next step change in process safety in the industry.  But this cannot reasonably be accomplished unless we start writing procedures that are more user-friendly; procedures that are more practical and that the operators will actually want to use.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/170824-MS
Document ID: SPE-170824-MS
Publisher: Society of Petroleum Engineers
Source: SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, 27-29 October, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Publication Date: 2014

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