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Workers on Doomed Rig Voiced Concern About Safety

A confidential survey of workers on the Deepwater Horizon in the weeks before the oil rig exploded showed that many of them were concerned about safety practices and feared reprisals if they reported mistakes or other problems.

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In the survey, commissioned by the rig’s owner, Transocean, workers said that company plans were not carried out properly and that they “often saw unsafe behaviors on the rig.”

Some workers also voiced concerns about poor equipment reliability, “which they believed was as a result of drilling priorities taking precedence over planned maintenance,” according to the survey, one of two Transocean reports obtained by The New York Times.

“At nine years old, Deepwater Horizon has never been in dry dock,” one worker told investigators. “We can only work around so much.”

“Run it, break it, fix it,” another worker said. “That’s how they work.”

According to a separate 112-page equipment assessment also commissioned by Transocean, many key components — including the blowout preventer rams and failsafe valves — had not been fully inspected since 2000, even though guidelines require its inspection every three to five years.

The report cited at least 26 components and systems on the rig that were in “bad” or “poor” condition.

A spokesman for Transocean, who confirmed the existence of the reports, wrote in an e-mail message that most of the 26 components on the rig found to be in poor condition were minor and that all elements of the blowout preventer had been inspected within the required time frame by its original manufacturer, Cameron. The spokesman, Lou Colasuonno, commenting on the 33-page report about workers’ safety concerns, noted that the Deepwater Horizon had seven consecutive years without a single lost-time incident or major environmental event.

The two reports are likely to broaden the discussion of blame for the April 20 explosion, which killed 11 workers and led to the gusher on the seafloor that has been polluting the Gulf of Mexico for months.

BP has been under the harshest glare for its role, but the Justice Department has said its criminal investigation of the disaster will look at the role of the many companies involved.

Together, these new reports paint a detailed picture of Transocean’s upkeep of the rig, decision-making and its personnel.

BP was leasing the rig from Transocean, and 79 of the 126 people on the rig the day it exploded were Transocean employees.

The first report focused on the its “safety culture” and was conducted by a division of Lloyd’s Register Group, a maritime and risk-management organization that dispatched two investigators to inspect the rig March 12 through 16. They conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with at least 40 Transocean workers.

The second report, on the status of the rig’s equipment, was produced by four investigators from a separate division of Lloyd’s Register Group, also on behalf of Transocean.

These investigators were scheduled to inspect the rig in April. While the report described workers’ concerns about safety and fears of reprisals, it did say that the rig was “relatively strong in many of the core aspects of safety management.” Workers believed teamwork on the rig was effective, and they were mostly worried about the reaction of managers off the rig.

“Almost everyone felt they could raise safety concerns and these issues would be acted upon if this was within the immediate control of the rig,” said the report, which also found that more than 97 percent of workers felt encouraged to raise ideas for safety improvements and more than 90 percent felt encouraged to participate in safety-improvement initiatives.

But investigators also said, “It must be stated at this point, however, that the workforce felt that this level of influence was restricted to issues that could be resolved directly on the rig, and that they had little influence at Divisional or Corporate levels.”

Only about half of the workers interviewed said they felt they could report actions leading to a potentially “risky” situation without reprisal.

“This fear was seen to be driven by decisions made in Houston, rather than those made by rig based leaders,” the report said.

“I’m petrified of dropping anything from heights not because I’m afraid of hurting anyone (the area is barriered off), but because I’m afraid of getting fired,” one worker wrote.

“The company is always using fear tactics,” another worker said. “All these games and your mind gets tired.”

Investigators also said “nearly everyone” among the workers they interviewed believed that Transocean’s system for tracking health and safety issues on the rig was “counter productive.”

Many workers entered fake data to try to circumvent the system, known as See, Think, Act, Reinforce, Track — or Start. As a result, the company’s perception of safety on the rig was distorted, the report concluded.

Even though it was more than a month before the explosion, the rig’s safety audit was conducted against the backdrop of what seems to have been a losing battle to control the well.

On the March visit, Lloyd’s investigators reported “a high degree of focus and activity relating to well control issues,” adding that “specialists were aboard the rig to conduct subsea explosions to help alleviate these well control issues.”

The mechanical problems discovered by investigators found problems with the rig’s ballast system that they said could directly affect the stability of the ship. They also concluded that at least one of the rig’s mud pumps was in “bad condition.”

The report also cited the rig’s malfunctioning pressure gauge and leaking parts and faulted the decision by workers to use a type of sealant “proven to be a major cause of pump bearing failure.”

Federal investigators have been focusing on the role that inadequate mud weight played in the blowout. Shortly before the explosion, workers on the rig replaced the heavy drilling mud with a lighter seawater. Drilling experts have speculated that having chosen a better mud weight could have prevented the disaster.

Transocean’s equipment report also may shed new light on why the blowout preventer failed to stop the surging well, which is one of the biggest remaining mysteries of the disaster.

Federal investigators said Tuesday at a panel that continuing to drill despite problems related to the blowout preventer might have been a violation of federal regulations that require a work stoppage if the equipment is found not to work properly.

While the equipment report says the device’s control panels were in fair condition, it also cites a range of problems, including a leaking door seal, a diaphragm on the purge air pump needing replacement and several error-response messages.

The device’s annulars, which are large valves used to control wellbore fluids, also encountered “extraordinary difficulties” surrounding their maintenance, the report said.

Despite the problems, multiple pressure tests were taken of the blowout preventer’s annulars and rams and the results were deemed “acceptable,” the report said.

The two Transocean-commissioned reports obtained by The Times echo the findings of a maintenance audit conducted by BP in September 2009. That audit found that Transocean had left 390 maintenance jobs undone, requiring more than 3,500 hours of work. The BP audit referred to the amount of deferred work as “excessive.”

- Robbie Brown contributed reporting from New Orleans, and Griffin Palmer from New York.

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