Shifting the Safety Narrative

In the high-risk world of oil and gas drilling, safety is paramount.

Traditional approaches have often focused on learning from failures and incidents, looking for ways to prevent things from going wrong.

However, a team at Noble, an oil and gas drilling contractor, has taken a different approach – they are learning from the positive practices that keep operations running smoothly and safely every day.

Thomas Koester, a human factors specialist at Noble, explains that their initial challenge was to find an alternative to just learning from failure.

“We had a well-established process for investigating incidents and accidents on our rigs, but we didn’t have a similar approach to learning from positive practice and the day-to-day competence of our crews,” he says.

The team wanted to shift the narrative around safety – moving away from just focusing on the absence of incidents, towards recognizing the presence of safety-enabling capabilities within the system.

As Thomas explains, “Safety is about building capacity into the system – it’s not just about having zero incidents, it’s about ensuring that if incidents happen, the system is resilient and can protect what’s most valuable.”

Observing Positive Practices in Action

To put this philosophy into practice, the team embarked on a journey of observing work on the oil rigs, capturing positive examples of how the crews were actively building safety into their everyday operations.

One of the first striking observations was how the workers on the drill floor managed the “red zone” – a designated high-risk area where heavy equipment is in motion.

“When the equipment is moving, the workers leave the red zone and wait outside. But they don’t just passively wait – they actively observe the equipment, maintain eye contact with the driller, and stand ready to intervene if anything seems amiss,” Thomas explains.

“This ‘active waiting’ creates an additional layer of safety, providing an extra set of eyes and ears to complement the driller’s monitoring.”

Another example highlighted how workers used a simple whiteboard to communicate critical information, creating a persistent record that could be cross-checked.

“They would write down the serial numbers of the pipes they were connecting, so there was a visual reference in addition to the verbal communication,” Thomas notes. “This redundancy helps catch any potential mix-ups or errors.”

The team also observed how workers strategically positioned themselves to maintain clear lines of sight and communication.

For instance, a worker removing a protective casing from a pipe stood facing the driller’s cabin, rather than with his back turned, ensuring he could easily signal or make eye contact if needed.

“These seemingly small actions demonstrate how the crews are constantly designing little ‘safety nets’ into their work processes,” Thomas says. “It’s not just about following procedures – they’re actively thinking about how to make their work safer and more resilient.”

Building Trust and Facilitating Learning

The learning process wasn’t without its challenges, however.

Thomas explains that the team had to carefully manage the perceptions of the rig crews, who were accustomed to audits and inspections focused on finding flaws and non-compliance.

“We had to be very clear that we were there to observe and learn from positive practices, not to judge or criticize. We wanted them to feel psychologically safe to show us how they were making their work safer.”

To facilitate this, the team developed a structured approach using “rapid ethnography” – closely observing the work in context, capturing examples, and then discussing and analyzing them with the crews.

“We’d start by just being silent observers, then gradually engage in conversation, asking them to reflect on what they were doing and why. This helped surface the tacit knowledge and expertise they’d developed through experience.”

The team also curated the positive examples they captured into two formats – “positive examples” that illustrated specific practices, and “learning cards” that posed reflective questions to stimulate further discussion and learning within the crews.

“The positive examples serve as conversation starters, helping the crews see their own work in a new light,” Thomas explains. “And the learning cards are designed to be used in various settings, from toolbox talks to safety meetings, to prompt the crews to reflect on how they’re building safety into their daily operations.”

Driving Systemic Change

Importantly, this is not a top-down, prescriptive approach.

“We didn’t want to just tell them ‘you should do this’ – our aim is to facilitate a bottom-up learning process, where the crews themselves identify the positive practices and work together to explore how they can be adapted and expanded to other areas.”

Thomas and his team have already seen tangible results from this approach.

“Just by putting this topic on the agenda and sharing our observations, we’ve seen the crews start to develop their own ‘learning from normal work’ mindset. They’re now actively looking for positive examples and sharing them with each other.”

Moreover, Thomas believes this approach has the potential to drive more fundamental, systemic changes in how safety is understood and improved.

“Rather than just focusing on correcting individual behaviors, we want to look at how we can design the overall work environment – the technologies, the processes, the organizational factors – to make it easier for people to do the right thing.”

He cites the example of the “stop and think” barrier the crews created to prevent workers from unconsciously entering an active red zone.

“They identified a risk of people falling into a mental ‘autopilot’ and automatically going to the wrong place, so they proactively put up a physical barrier to trigger that moment of reflection. That’s the kind of systemic, design-oriented solution we want to encourage.”

As the team continues to refine and expand their learning from normal work approach, Thomas is excited about its potential to drive lasting, sustainable improvements in safety.

“It’s not just about capturing data or creating training materials – it’s about fostering a culture where everyone, from frontline workers to managers, is constantly looking for ways to make their work safer and more resilient. That’s the kind of transformative change we’re aiming for.”

The practical examples highlighted illustrate how seemingly simple actions and adaptations can have a profound impact on safety.

By shifting the focus from failure to success, the Noble team is uncovering the hidden expertise and problem-solving capabilities of their frontline crews – and using those insights to build a stronger, more resilient safety culture across the organization.