Mindfulness on the Rig

A University of Houston research project aims to improve safety, health, and wellbeing of offshore oil and gas workers.

Source: University of Houston

Through a grant from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Christiane Spitzmueller, an industrial and organizational psychology professor at the University of Houston (UH), led a 6-month study of offshore oil and gas workers in collaboration with widely recognized offshore worker safety expert Rhona Flin, professor of business at Scotland’s Robert Gordon University, and executives at Baker Hughes and Diamond Offshore.

With a goal of increasing the safety, health, and wellbeing on offshore installations in the Gulf of Mexico, the team developed a “time to refocus toolkit,” containing short mindfulness practices and exercises that allow workers to refocus in high-risk situations offshore.

In recent years, there have been numerous accidents on US offshore oil and gas rigs that have resulted in deaths and environmental disasters, notably the 2010 accident involving the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 people and spilled 210 million bbl of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

“The goal was to design a program that can be picked up by any oil and gas company with offshore workers in high-risk environments. The program was designed to also be usable by service company employees since service companies are rarely included in research on offshore safety,” said Spitzmueller, who is also a UH Energy Fellow.

The study findings suggest that workers who practice more mindfulness experience less emotional exhaustion, fatigue, and psychological strain. By the end of the study, workers’ daily sense of productivity, job satisfaction, and situation awareness increased as mindfulness practice increased. However, the researchers note it takes time before the positive effects of mindfulness can be observed.

“We started off the study by creating a functional job analysis with a safety focus, for each job requirement,” Spitzmueller said. “We asked people to tell us about their jobs, like what an assistant driller did during a shift.”

The workers were asked about the tasks they thought were most high risk and where they had observed the most challenges around safety, common distractions, near misses, and actual accidents.

“Some of the findings, surprised me,” Spitzmueller said. “While they were working, they were thinking about issues their families were facing back home without being able to do anything about it. That popped up more frequently than I would have anticipated.”

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