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Disabled oil rig alarm points to human failures in Gulf oil spill

As investigators probe the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident, it's becoming clearer that human decisions regarding key safety equipment were part of the nation's largest oil spill.

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As a result, the alarm didn't go off, Williams said, hampering the effort to evacuate the blown rig. Consequently, the alarm did not sound during the emergency, leaving workers to relay information through the loudspeaker system. In a statement, Transocean says the disabled alarm was not a safety oversight.

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Williams also said he was reprimanded for questioning why Transocean had disabled a system for removing dangerous gas from an onboard drilling shack. “No, the damn thing’s been in bypass for five years,” he said he was told by supervisor Mark Hay. “Why’d you even mess with it?”

Mr. Williams testified that Mr. Hay added, “The entire fleet runs them in ‘bypass.’ ”

The rig exploded after a kick of methane gas spurted out of the well head, ultimately catching fire from the spark of a diesel generator. Attempts to manually activate the blow-out preventer failed. The explosion happened on the same day that a number of BP officials were on the rig to give the crew a safety award.

Rig culture discouraged complaints

Immediately after the accident, some workers and their families praised the Deepwater Horizon's safety procedures. But some workers have since testified that the aging rig had a number of safety problems. What's more, they say, the culture on the rig discouraged complaints about safety.

Also in testimony last week, BP official John Guide fought back against the notion that the company is lax about safety. “The culture is that safety is the priority,” Mr. Guide said.

Ultimately, investigations like the one taking place outside New Orleans, a criminal probe by the US Department of Justice, as well as numerous congressional hearings, will have to determine the extent to which a corner-cutting culture exists in the offshore drilling industry.

Writing recently in Popular Science, oil rig investigator Jasper Collum found himself having to fight the impulse to blame the Deepwater Horizon accident on a "good ol' boy" culture where a largely Southern workforce are "bent on 'gittin 'r' done' even if that 'done' gets 'got' with bailing wire and spit."

But more than individual mistakes, Mr. Collum writes, the root of the accident runs deep into the core of the oil industry itself, an industry "which is both comfortably in bed with its government regulators and driven by huge operating costs, where minutes can be measured in thousands of dollars."

In that light, he writes, "It's easy to see the motivation to rubber stamp some seemingly small engineering decisions, slowly degrading safety limitations, comfortable in the fact that success last time proved that a certain amount of redundancy is not always necessary. It was those small decisions, which are difficult to track and hard to monitor, that truly led to the disaster we're watching on our televisions now."

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

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Gulf oil spill: Fouling air as well as water?

Methane's hidden impact in Gulf oil spill

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