With the understanding that disasters do not just happen, they are caused by a particular sequence of events locked in time, the role of safety practitioners is extremely crucial. Particularly, when we talk about the oil and gas industry where a Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon still haunt many. In our Stories that Inspire series, we have with us today, Mr Josy John, the Corporate Safety Head at Tata Consulting Engineers Limited. He has over three decades of experience in safety across various industries and it is for his passion for safety that Mr. John is recognized as a Safety Evangelist and Thought Leader in this field. Mr. Josy John shares with Energy Dais how he looks at safety in the oil and gas industry and how important is building a safety culture where human lives are valued and put before anything else.
Stories That Inspire: In Conversation with Josy John
What motivated you to join the oil and gas industry?
How did I get into the oil and gas industry? That’s a very good question to answer. I can say that I was born into the oil and gas industry because my father used to work for Shell. My earliest memory of visiting an oil and gas installation was in Chennai. When I was five years old, my father once took me to his office. I took a walk around and I remember seeing these huge petroleum tanks. Being a small kid of five years, I had a lot of questions to ask as I was very curious while looking at the huge tanks. As a five-year-old, I actually made my entry into the oil and gas industry and it’s been there for many years till he retired and for many years we stayed within the company accommodation at various locations. So, I was used to the odours of the various products like diesel, naphtha, and I still carry the memory of those odours.
When I grew up and graduated in civil engineering, my first project in the middle east was the one which was in the oil and gas industry, and I have worked with some of the biggest companies in Saudi Arabia. Being a Civil Engineer, I straight away got into the construction side and I was fortunate to be engaged in a polypropylene plant construction. It was a huge plant and for me, it was a big change in my life, in the way I looked at construction.
Particularly, when it comes to the safety aspects, the oil and gas industry on the operational side puts out a higher demand for safety. Even at the construction stage, safety was held at a very high premium. It was a good exposure to safety in the oil and gas industry, in construction itself.
For about twenty years, I have worked in the middle east with different companies mainly in the oil and gas sector – onshore and offshore. I have done projects for ADNOC, ZADCO, etc. I have been through the desert, seen cross-country pipelines, set up accommodation for new projects in those regions. I did some work for offshore platforms, one being on Zakum, one of the main platforms of ZADCO. It was quite a challenge. I remember our Platform Manager saying, “Your company is one of the best in the area of welding and fabrication but for us, that’s not the important thing. We want companies who have safety as their highest priority. For me, a day at production can not be shut down because of safety concerns.” This was one of the first things I learned and that’s where my appreciation of safety also started going up with increasing oil and gas offshore exposure.
I came back to India in 2012 and I currently work with Tata Consulting Engineers Limited. We are also engaged in the oil and gas industry. We do work for Bharat Petroleum, Kochi Refinery and we now work with Shell. We are setting up retail fuel stations for Shell at various locations. We are the EPC, as they call it. So the association with the oil and gas industry is always there.
We offer a service known as Human Safety Audit which is also taking us to places where construction of oil and gas retail plants is happening. In brief, this is my association with the industry – where I started and where I stand now.
How do you look at understanding, approaching, and managing at-risk behaviour?
It is the basic human nature to take risks. Taking risks is a part of the DNA of the human being and the risk-taking attitude is very much evident in whatever we do.
In the oil and gas industry, the difference is, there’s a limit to which risks can be taken because if you cross a particular line, there is a possibility of major disaster and therefore at-risk behaviour has to be managed.
So you need to have processes that will ensure that at-risk behaviour is brought under control. Now with the technology moving fast, the understanding also has to increase.
We believe that a commitment to safety must run much deeper than simply being a “priority.” How important a role does the company culture play in safety?
Developing a safety culture has a direct relation with the commitment levels of the individuals. How do you develop a culture of safety? The first thing, I personally believe and vouch for is that you have to have a concern for your fellow human being.
Safety of human beings is the first thing that has to come, property always comes second. Property can be replaced but a human being cannot be replaced. I am a Safety Practitioner. For me, human life is sacred, it needs to be protected, and that is where commitment also comes in.
Today, human beings are intelligent, they know exactly what they are doing but then, when it comes to safety, we might end up acting foolishly at times, which happens to the best of us.
For instance, you are driving around a corner, the speed limit is put up at 40km but you choose to ignore. You say, ‘I don’t have a problem, I have got a new car, the road is empty,’ and there you go, taking off at a high speed. A couple of months ago we did read in the newspaper about how a guy drove a new car at more than 100/km speed and he got headed onto a ramp in Hyderabad and just as he hit the turn, he flipped over onto the road below, killing a bystander over there and it is a curve where it is very clear you can not go over 30km speed. So, he did not look at it as part of his culture to follow the rules.
Following the rules is very important for developing a culture of safety.
When we look at the Indian scene, our culture is not that of safety. We have a culture of saying, ‘it was not my problem, it was fate that decided this’. If you go in the Middle East, you put it on fate saying, “Inshallah, it was God’s will”. On the other hand, the Westerner is part of a more rational safety culture so he looks at it in a more rational way and values human life more than anything else. So when you start working with western individuals, their approach to human life is very different. You work in the subcontinent region, there’s a very different kind of approach where people are not even aware of safety requirements. Having worked in the middle east, when it comes to safety culture, on one end you have the westerner with high appreciation of safety and on the other hand, you have people from the subcontinent who do not talk about it and in between, you have the middle eastern culture of ‘I don’t care’. You need to marry these three together to evolve a culture that balances the whole thing. At the same time, ensure that human lives are taken care of.
But happily, in the oil and gas industry, the standards are set by the western oil companies globally so there is a very strong safety culture in place. How do you develop a good safety culture? All of us are very intelligent in the way we understand things, in capturing information. In our scenario, all that information stays in the brain but where is the commitment coming. The commitment comes from the heart. From understanding, you need to start believing the truth. From that belief, you have to get into that practice and that practice is what we call commitment.
Understanding, believing, practicing, I always use it as the UBP principle and that is the biggest challenge a person has. From the brain to the heart, it is just 12 inches in any human being but that is the greatest distance a person has to travel in order to make a commitment.
Over the years, I have seen a significant change in this respect. Culture and commitment have to be there, the underlying principle is that human life is precious. It is sacred, it has to be protected. While managing safety, moral, legal, or financial aspects, moral has the precedence when it comes to safety culture.
In an industry such as oil and gas – which operates 24 hours a day, around the world — the need to manage risk never ends. Amid this backdrop, what kind of safety framework needs to be in place?
The oil industry has something unique. Almost all the activities pertaining to the oil industry whether it is in the upstream or downstream segment, work happens 24*7, round the clock. When you work 24*7, and when you have human interface, you need to make sure that the fatigue aspect is really taken care of. You need to have a very robust framework. You cannot lower the standards irrespective of where you are. An offshore platform works 24 hours, a refinery works 24 hours. Though the same person is not going to work for 24 hours but you need to have planned breaks for them, planned outages of even the plant itself, to ensure that life of the plant is also elongated. It is important that the integrity of the asset is also maintained for a longer period and for this, the basic framework should be robust with no leeway for any excuses or anybody making shortcuts.
As I mentioned earlier, human life is very very sacred, it is important that rules laid down for working on a 24-hour operation are robust so that, nobody gets hurt. If you have human life being taken care of well, by default that person will work in a manner that the property does not get destroyed and if the property doesn’t get destroyed, the environment is also taken care of. When it comes to oil and gas, a major fire or explosion in a set up can create enough damage.
Take care of the human being, have a framework for 24-hour operations, the property will be taken care of and finally, the environment will also be taken care of. Have a good framework, you will have a good safety management system in place.
How are you looking at safety in Oil and Gas 4.0?
Industry 4.0 is here and the oil and gas industry can also not be insulated from it. This sector needs to be part of it because of the kind of activities that go on in the oil and gas industry, there’s a huge potential for it. A lot of data gets generated, how do you manage that, a lot of automation happens, oil has to move from different locations, the size of refineries is going up. In all these scenarios, 4.0 plays a huge role. But where does safety come in? Safety has to be the bedrock on which it has to be built.
With more and more remote-controlled activities happening, the safety has to be in-built in the remote-controlled facilities. For instance, when you are providing drones, for carrying out a pipeline survey, if the drone is not controlled in a proper manner, it can crash and lead to a major fire incident. So are there enough in-built checks and balances, is to be first verified.
We need to keep 4.0 in the right perspective so that growth of the industry takes place along with this transformation. Robotics is also quite common these days, the human interface is reducing, but there has to be a method where the human interface will also have a double-check whether the robot has actually done its job. You can use a robot to tighten up an equipment, flanges, and pipes and fittings but has it done completely that is a question that needs to be verified. Pipeline integrity checks are done, asset integrity checks are done, using remote controls because some of the facilities are in remote areas and it is difficult for people to sometimes access it. 4.0 does have a role and safety needs to look at it from that aspect whether the effect of using the technology will add to the hazard and increase the risk. Safety professionals should be consulted in this area before 4.0 gets impacted on that particular business.
According to you, are the oil and gas companies doing enough for HSE? What more can be done to improve the safety framework?
Safety is a product of the oil and gas industry because it is the oil and gas industry that actually drives safety. You go across the world in any country, you will see that it is the oil and gas industry that sets the standards and the others just follow.
So now, is the oil and gas industry doing enough for safety? They are doing plenty. They are doing plenty of work in that area and they are even setting a benchmark on which others have to follow. Now if you are constructing a petrochemical refinery, the standards that they demonstrate are the standards at which the actual plant operates so there is no lowering of rules over there. Major companies around the world adopt the same practice, whether it’s in the operating scenario or in construction. That has actually impacted the construction industry considerably and the safety standards within the construction industry have really gone up. Contractors who deal with oil and gas and also non oil and gas sectors, the practices that they have picked up are now getting into the non oil and gas sectors. Overall, it’s a win-win situation for all. The oil and gas industry is leading and others are following. Certainly, more can be done, as new technologies, systems, equipment come in. The safety levels keep on increasing. It is an open place and there is always a scope for improvement. What was done 30 years ago is not done today. The time is becoming less and less. What was done 5 years back is not acceptable as a normal practice today. The oil and gas industry also invests a lot of money in safety practices so that the people and the assets are taken care of.
What would be your message to the young generation seeking a career in Oil and Gas Safety?
Oil and gas industry is a place where there is plenty of work available and as per the current estimates, it is not going down anytime soon. There is a career but how do you relate it to safety?
Safety is not just a career, it has to be a passion. Unless you have a passion for safety, whether it is oil and gas or otherwise, you will not be successful.
Safety is not a degree that you possess, it is a practice. Your knowledge is not based on the qualifications that are achieved but on your experience over the years. Safety as a career in the oil industry is always there but you need to be a person who is always willing to learn.
In safety, the level of textbook knowledge is not very high but it is about being in practice.
It is keeping your eyes and ears open to what is around you.
Reading what is happening around you, look at case studies elsewhere and see in your own environment, what can actually be done. Universities do offer specialized courses in oil and gas safety but that is just the base on which you come out. Your career depends on how well you are able to understand and assimilate. The basic requirement of any practitioner is to see what are the hazards. Are you able to identify the hazards? What are the control measures that you can bring in? Oil and gas is a good business and safety is also a very good career. There are plenty of opportunities available but you should be willing to dirty your hands, spend a lot of time out in the field, it is not sitting in front of the computer and reading. Safety as a practice has to be out there in the field, it is no different in oil and gas companies too.
How do you look back at your journey in the industry? What are you looking forward to in the times ahead?
Looking back at my journey in the industry, as I said in the beginning, I was first introduced to the oil and gas industry at the age of five. But the professional journey started when I graduated in Civil Engineering from the university and moved to the Middle east. Now if I look back, I would say, I feel quite happy because I have learned a lot of things that are specific to the oil and gas community and I have also contributed to the development of the community in various ways.
At the bottom of it, I have been able to ensure that people go back home safe.
I have been part of safety teams at various locations, helping people to understand what are the hazards and why they are doing what they are doing. Sometimes when you deal with subcontinent workers, they do not know so it needs a lot of coaching and coaxing for them to do things in the right manner.
I look back with a sense of pride that there are people who come back and tell me ‘Sir what you told me that day, I still remember. If it weren’t for you, I would have got injured’. This gives me a great sense of comfort.
Now, three decades have gone by and the sun is slowly setting out into the horizon. But safety being a passion which I have, I would still continue to be a practitioner wherever there are opportunities. I would be willing to guide people to understand the fundamentals of safety, to ensure that human lives are protected.
It is not only about protecting your life but also the lives of others. You will not create a situation where the other person can get injured or can be exposed to an occupational hazard.
It has been a very good journey. The circumstances might not have been good all the time but the life journey has been very good. Varying circumstances, varying challenges, stood up to all of them.
I remember the first time going offshore, I needed to go on a helicopter for underwater training. I was very afraid of water because, in my younger days, I had once drowned in a river. Water was not something I was very fond of. But then if I had to work offshore or visit a platform, I had to do it. It was a very different kind of experience and that was probably one of those moments which I remember very vividly.
Oil and gas industry has taught me a lot of lessons and I have also contributed. I am still continuing to learn. My only hope is that I still continue to contribute to safety in oil and gas as well as the associated industries, more into the construction and maintenance aspects.
Pushing the Boundaries – Safely
Considering the challenging landscape of the oil and gas industry, safety is the primary focus. Without ensuring the safety of the people who are driving this industry, the operations would come to a standstill. Safety practitioners across the oil and gas community are dedicated to improving safety practices through research, knowledge sharing, models, training, and advocating the need for prioritizing safety at work. At the heart of this process, lies the intelligent identification of potential hazards and putting the best preventive measures in place. Small oversights can quickly spiral out of control and spark major accidents.
We are very grateful to Mr. Josy John for sharing his unique perspective on safety with us, one that makes a huge impact. We hope his journey inspires many others and touches lives. If the oil and gas community is safer and stronger today, it is because of people like Mr. John at the forefront. These are the stories that inspire this industry to walk the extra mile.
(This is an excerpt from an exclusive interview with Josy John and Energy Dais reserves all rights of publication.)