I have traveled into the tropics enough for others to suspect that i would be sufficiently adapted to the heat. However, as an anglo-saxon with a cold-weather adapted set of genetics and a cold-weather-hardened background, this has all but ruled out my enjoyment of the heat. It is with these thoughts, floating around in the back of my head, that i prepare to disembark my plane into what can only be considered a gel of humidity.
Papua New Guinea has long held a special place in my heart, the challenges and rewards of working in this region of the world are astounding, and i am keen to make use of every opportunity available to travel into the wildlife rich jungles of the highlands.
Over the years, I have challenged some of the toughest and most unforgiving terrains this planet has to offer in pursuit of natural resources, locked deep below the surface. I have helped to coordinate logistics, mapped sections of the Canadian boreal forest, and have photographed the moments that make resource exploration feel real; but above all, I have helped to understand and improve safety in these incredibly remote conditions.
Safety has always been, and will likely remain, a challenging facet of the exploration world, and this is all the more true when operating in a third world or developing country.
I have traveled extensively in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and, in many ways, they share similar aspects to each other as well as to other oil rich regions, such as many African countries. The people of these countries operate under an entirely different set of values and social customs. They have remarkably different levels of education from what we might expect from a Western counterpart. When a Western company moves into a developing country, they might as well shred their safety manuals and start over. These countries’ cultural approach to safety can be quite a contrast to the Western approach and can be seemingly unintuitive. It demands rethinking safety from the ground up.
I transfer from my international flight onto a Canadian-build Dash 8, and we make our way inland, over a seemingly endless sea of virgin jungle. A little under two hours later, I land and emerge into the radically cooler air of Tari. We have gained over fifteen hundred meters and shed nearly ten degrees from an exhausting 33 °C to a much more manageable 23.5 °C.
In this remote section of the mountains, major oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, Esso Highlands, and Oil Search, are making groundbreaking gas discoveries that will become the backbone of the PNG LNG project. These companies have an enormous challenge to safeguard and protect not only the environment and the local people who live around their projects, but also the national men and women who work on their rigs, in their camps, and at their local offices.
On this particular visit, I find myself honored to be visiting a High Arctic Energy Services rig, perched high atop a mountain, nearly two thousand meters above sea level. Based in Red Deer, Alberta, in the heart of the Canadian oil country, High Arctic has led their field in drilling and well services safety. This company has somewhat surprisingly spent years drilling in the jungles of PNG. I have connected through two helicopters and a four-wheel drive when I finally arrive at the drilling rig. I am reminded again, as I climb the stairs to the drill floor, just how out of place their company name feels when it is 30 °C in the middle of the jungle.
It is late in the afternoon, and I am happy to be unloading my belongings into my room in time for dinner and some rest.
Over dinner I ask the High Arctic tool-push what his thoughts are on the safety culture here in the jungle. He responds, “You have to relate to the people in a totally different way. Often their ideas of acceptable risk are dramatically different to ours, and what we see as working at extreme heights is nothing to a person who spent his childhood climbing trees in the jungle as a boy. What’s required is an angle on their culture, a way to reach out and convey the safety message in a culturally meaningful manner.” We talk over two helpings of dessert and a coffee, and I am left with the feeling that this man genuinely cares for the people he works with. It is all too easy to talk safety without actually being committed; this was not one of those cases.
Being committed to safety in a developing and culturally diverse country means adjusting your entire safety program, from safety meetings and paperwork formatting to the way in which you must relate to the people on the ground, turning wrenches and fueling helicopters. The men and women who inhabit this part of the world are a tough, hardened, resourceful, and intelligent group of people with deep cultural ties to a tribal background filled with song, dance, and spiritual connections.
I have always approached my safety platform in a manner that best works with the culture of the region I am visiting. In PNG and other developing countries alike, it is important to work drama and showmanship into your safety meetings. I have used strategies such as blindfolding friends, and then asking a group of native men if this man could still earn a living in their area. I have asked a man to place one hand behind his back and asked the crew how much less he might earn if he had only one hand. It is through these displays that I have demonstrated the need for safety glasses to protect our eyes, and gloves to protect our hands, not only because that is the rule, but because we want everyone to continue to be able to hold their family and see their children, which goes for expats and nationals alike.
A big part of rethinking your safety program is thinking outside the box, and that includes how we reward those who are active members of the safety programs. I love bringing a portable printer into the jungle, snapping photos of the work force and printing off images of those men and women who are working safely; the men would physically clamber to have their photos taken with all their personal protective equipment (PPE) securely in place, from their hard hats to their boots. Handing out printed photos to people who had almost no ability to have their photo captured was a great source of pride for the local men working on the rig.
Later in the evening, as I lie in bed, I think back to some of the long and fruitful conversations I have had with Kevin Doran, the president of High Arctic International. In one particular conversation, he informed me that, “Our commitment to safety is the backbone of our operations here; it is the reason why we form such a positive relationship with the community, and we strive to get the men home safe to their families, without exception. That’s not to say it’s easy; however, every one of our safety programs needs to be tailored to the people who are involved in it—be they Canadian, American, Australian, or New Guinean, and that’s no small challenge.”
The major oil companies and drilling contractors must continue to redefine their safety programs by their audience. Sometimes that can mean pushing forward strange, almost crazy ideas like my safety drama acts or my safe PPE photo handouts.
Leaving the country behind, I have a renewed belief that the key to developing safety systems in the remote and foreign parts of the world lies in adjusting our safety systems to suit the hearts and minds of those who work under them, whether it is in South East Asia, Oceania, or Africa.
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