CompEx spoke with Chris Hyde, an industry expert with over 30 years’ experience in the Oil and Gas industry, following his talk at the Best Practice Conference. We learnt more about his personal competence journey working within hazardous areas, the trends in competency he has witnessed along the way and how the CompEx scheme will play a crucial part in the future of competency.

“My journey within the world of competency really began around the mid-1980s. I’d just graduated in Maths and Engineering Science from Aberdeen University and, to be frank, I knew absolutely nothing about hazardous atmospheres or control of ignition sources as a result of my degree.

Fresh out of my undergraduate course, I joined an IOC for my first role in the oil and gas industry. Shortly after this, the Shetland Chinook crash took place, killing 50 out of 52 passengers – including two almost complete shift teams. I began working offshore as a maintenance technician – an opportunity that I grasped with both hands, and one that gave me hands on experience that I would probably not have had, except for the need to supplement the lost shift teams.

I’d completed an industry leading 12-month IOC graduate training course, covering everything from geology to drilling to contracting, but we took very little away from that time in the niche expertise of managing hazardous areas and ignition control.

Fast forward a few years, and I stepped into a permanent role as a mechanical technician and then maintenance supervisor offshore. Later, working in the Middle East, I was responsible for overseeing the operation of pipelines, power stations and oil and gas processing facilities. During this time, the majority of the competence effort was vested in Third Country Nationals (TCNs), and there was a genuine push to develop competency amongst the staff.

At this point, with the benefit of hindsight, I should probably have been a master in hazardous atmospheres and ignition control, but I was far from it. I had, at best, incomplete knowledge.

In the early 90s, it seemed for a moment that the importance of competency had gained momentum when the first safety cases appeared as a consequence of the Cullen inquiry following Piper Alpha. Unfortunately, a thick pile of paperwork turned up on my desk outlining one such case. I had no idea what to do with it, didn’t fully understand the contents of it and had taken no part in building it. To put it frankly, whilst there was massive benefit in writing the safety cases, during the early days of safety cases we as an industry hadn’t recognised their practical operational benefit. It took some iterations of safety cases and quite some years to figure that out. No one’s fault – just a necessary evolution.

I moved into a field management role in West Africa, which involved running a team of 1000 people, 500 wells and producing 250,000 barrels a day. My personal competence should probably have been complete at this point, but again, with hindsight, it wasn’t by any means – a classic case of “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

It was in the 2000s when the first safety cases appeared that had a focus on practical operational application, and we had the opportunity to ‘operationalise’ them. These included safety-critical activities, equipment, positions, tasks and all of a sudden we had something we could really do with safety cases to increase the process safety of day-to-day operations. From this we mandated and assured that if tasks are recognised as safety-critical, you carry them out as stated and if people are safety-critical, you ensure that their competency is right. In my mind, this linked competency to safety cases, and therefore major accident hazards, for the first time. This was a tangible definite positive step to methodically linking risk and competence, both as an industry, and within my own career.

During later years in Egypt, I was tasked with building a competency system from the lowliest technician, up to senior managers. It was at this point that I would claim mastery level of competence in managing hazardous atmospheres and ignition control, purely as a result of thinking through what competency was required at each level of the organisation.

I often look outward now to see how the industry has evolved in comparison to when I started out in the 1980s.

Despite the numerous serious incidents with human cost that have taken place, the lives that have been lost and the preventable circumstances that caused these awful events to occur, we are still seeing repetitions today. Why? Well, there are several reasons, but a considerable contributor has been access to lessons – especially important for those just starting out in the industry. Having technical standards is important, but understanding the “why” is critical.

Since my retirement a couple of years ago, I joined as a visiting university lecture teaching on an MSc Petroleum & Engineering course. I’m doing my best to give the learning from industry defining safety events to the future industry leaders but academia moves slower than glaciers. People are leaving university with as little knowledge on hazardous atmospheres and ignition control as I had when I left university in 1985.

It is important to note that universities are reaching out to people from industry to help make their courses more relevant – but the change needed is significant, and the appetite to change is limited. In the UK, people coming out university will still just have a largely academic qualification and industries will need to invest in turning that academic knowledge into practical ability on the ground. However, in my opinion, less and less people want this practical experience. A certificate of attendance at a training course does not equal competence, but many people seem to think it does.

We tend to think of hazardous atmospheres and ignition control as being a practitioner’s skillset. This is largely true at a detailed level. However, more and more, asset managers are unlikely to have come through a technical or operational career path. Through no fault of their own, there is a large element of they don’t know what they don’t know. So far, as an industry, we haven’t been good at filling these knowledge gaps. Asset managers don’t need to be able to terminate a cable, but they must be able to recognise the risk to their asset, and when the decisions they make alter the integrity of EX equipment, for example.

And that’s where CompEx comes in. The scheme works towards one main aim: supporting and promoting workplace safety by certifying personal competency. CompEx is underpinned by international standards, and the qualifications are delivered through an international network of approved training centres. This means that the competency validation scheme is internationally accessible, making support available for all industries with potentially explosive atmospheres. Businesses need to invest in the individual core competency of their employees and contractors working in hazardous areas, and in turn will gain the reassurance that they employ a continuously upskilled, competent workforce.

This investment into competence is something those in senior positions, who perhaps haven’t done the field work and gained that practical experience, need to start to recognise – it’s a smaller crime to have an incident, but it’s a massive crime not to learn from it and implement change as a result.