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Shell - managing competence of wells staff

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The best way to keep wells safe is to make sure that all the people working on them know what they are doing - and you are confident of this. Shell has a range of processes in place to confirm this happens

"I'm passionate about the competence of our people, culture and mindset,' said Peter Sharpe, executive vice president wells, Shell.

'But it starts with competence. You have got to have the right foundation.'

'The most important thing is that we have a level of competence which is required. The goal is for us to have the best trained people in the industry.'

Shell has 17,000 active wells, and currently has some 140 active drilling rigs under contract. There are 1700 Shell staff members looking after them.

To make sure that staff working on wells know what they are doing, Shell puts all its well engineers through a +/- 4 year training programme, followed by exams.

This training is in addition to the normal graduate degree and involves 800 hours self-study and a number of classroom and online courses.

It is accredited by Robert Gordon University of Aberdeen and the University of Houston. It counts towards a Master of Sciences (MSC) from these universities.

It finishes with 1.5 days of exams, with 3 x 3.5 hour papers, covering casing and tubing design, well control, and a general paper.

When setting the exam, Shell staff prepare 'model' (or what it considers to be very good) answers to the questions, and then consults with staff at Robert Gordon University, who might make suggestions about how the model answers or questions could be improved.

Only 80 per cent of people pass the exams, and those that fail are only allowed to re-sit it once. 'It is extremely tough,' said Mr Sharpe. 'I'm not aware of anyone in the industry that does something comparable.'

But as a result of it, 'I know all of our people are competent. It means I feel pretty confident.'

Shell has been making its well engineers do courses and sit exams since 1973, when it started the 'Round 2' exam, initially for 'drilling' ('well engineering'). It was expanded in 2005 to include well intervention.

There are 2 rounds of exams. After passing the second round of exams, people can call themselves a Shell certified engineer.

2250 employees have sat the second round well engineering exam since 1973, and 250 people have sat the newer second round exam on well intervention.

Mr Sharpe believes that the entire industry could adopt standards like Shell does, for the competence of its well engineers. Engineers could get a license if they pass the exam, and would not be allowed to work on wells without it.

If the industry doesn't develop its own accreditation system, they might find that regulators step in and do it, he said.

Shell does not make any money directly from the training, but sees it as an investment in capability. 'I see learning as a strategic enabler to the rest of the business, not a business unit itself,' he said.

Mr Sharpe does not see any reason to believe that only large companies can make sure they have highly trained staff. Small airline companies usually have no problem in making sure they their pilots are trained to the highest standards.

The airline industry developed similar safety training courses during the 1960s and 70s, as the industry got much faster, to make sure it could be safe, and required that all pilots be licensed, he said.


A recent development has been providing the course materials on an iPad, rather than the traditional ring binders.

An iPad is not only much easier to carry than 10 large ring binders.

The course materials on the iPad can also be automatically updated and enhanced continually. People can leave comments and talk to other people doing the same course. There are instructional videos provided on the iPad.

The cost of providing the materials even proves cheaper on an iPad than in binders. 'It is a more intense and sustainable learning experience,' said Bernd van den Brekel, Shell Learning Manager Wells.

Well control course

Shell has developed a suite of advanced well control courses, which are accredited by the International Well Control Forum (IWCF) and International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC). These are mandatory to be taken every 2 years for operations staff.

There are courses in well control (surface), well control (subsea), completion and well engineering (surface), completion and well engineering (subsea).

Well control is about the control of fluids in the reservoir.

People will need relevant certification for the work they are going to do. For example, if you want to work as a drilling supervisor on a floating rig, you need well engineering subsea certificate.

The course checks that people have an in-depth knowledge of barriers at every stage in the operation, so they know how to prevent a well control incident and what to do if something goes wrong. It also includes a section on human dynamics.

All supervisory contractor staff also have to pass the course.

Shell splits well control into 3 parts - (i) primary well control (drilling mud), (ii) secondary well control (if fluids start flowing into the wellbore, when you use the blow out preventers), and (iii) tertiary well control, when reservoir fluids flow to surface in an uncontrolled manner.

'We think it's most important to train staff in (i) and (ii),' said Bernd van den Brekel, Shell Learning Manager Wells. 'That's where we have most control.'

There will be a mandatory course for operational staff, which they have to take every 2 years, with an exam administered by the IWCF.

'We don't set the exam questions, so there's independence of instructor and exam,' he said.

Process safety course

To help staff get better and more aware about process safety, Shell put together a well process safety awareness course, launched in September 2011.

Of its 1700 staff working in wells (including rig site workers), 1600 of them had registered to take the course by early December 2011, and 79 per cent of them had completed it.

The course is provided online, and covers developments with standards, equipment, people and reporting. There is a test at the end of it.

Personal + process safety

Some oil companies have been criticised for focussing too much on personal safety (the risk of accidents to individuals) and not focussing enough on process safety (the management of hazards that can give rise to major accidents involving release of potentially dangerous materials, release of energy, such as fire or explosion).

Personal safety is of course important, but it is also easier to focus on, because it is more obvious. 'Personal safety is like cutting your hand, you know it's happened,' Mr Sharpe said.

Shell claims that its personal safety record, using the measure of total recordable case frequency, is the best out of all the oil majors. 'We are at the bottom [with the best safety record] of our peer group,' he said. 'More than half of our rigs go a year without anybody getting hurt.'

But personal safety doesn't tell you the likelihood of having a major accident. You have to look at the whole process, or evaluate 'process safety', to try to work this out.

'Process safety is much more difficult. It's like having high blood pressure,' he said. 'There's different things you need to focus on.'

It has systems in place to track the compliance to Shell well integrity standards at any time.

Well integrity software

Since 2008 Shell has a software system to manage data about the integrity of all of its wells around the world.

At any time, Mr Sharpe can go into the software, andsee in real-time whether corrective or preventive maintenance has been done and be confident that all wells globally are in full compliance with the well integrity standard.

Shell taken this approach a step further and is implementing a similar system for the construction phase of wells. It allows measuring compliance against the well control standards around competency of people, certification of equipment, quality of barriers, design derogation and so forth.

Both systems provide key metrics to measure discipline, compliance and make risk and management of change visible.

For the wells which are not compliant with the standards, it requires that an independent technical authority has a look at what is happening, and approves that whatever has been done instead is equally safe.

Speeding up learning

Shell does 600,000 to 700,000 training days per year for its staff, or an average of 6-7 training days per person per year - the company employs 97,000 people.

It has 580 staff members who work in learning, and 30 learning centres.

Shell believes that providing good learning opportunities is a way to differentiate the company from other oil companies, particularly in doing business with national oil companies, said Jorrit van der Togt, VP Projects and Technology - Learning and Organizational Effectiveness, Shell Global Solutions International B.V.

Shell has a system of 22 'principal technical experts' in wells, who are all recognised as the company's top experts in various aspects of wells, including well control, well design, well testing and well integrity.

This is the 'person most knowledgeable in our company,' Mr van den Brekel said.

They are supported by a network of subject matter experts.

Shell also uses simulators for drilling training, and developed a unique simulator for well intervention work. For one particularly complex deepwater well offshore Norway, the company developed a scenario on the drilling simulator and took it out to the rig, so staff could practise drilling the well on the simulator first.

When staff are asked how they think the training could be improved, more time on simulators is the most common response, he said.

Associated Companies
» Royal Dutch Shell plc
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