Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award 2014

The Man Who Wrote the Book on Field Safety

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Kevin Bohacs
Kevin Bohacs

It didn’t start out to be a bible.

“At ExxonMobil, we have a very good Operational Integrity Management System (in place since the late 1980s) that addresses almost every aspect of what we do as a corporation, from shooting seismic and drilling wells to running refineries, in a very systematic approach across the corporation.”

That’s AAPG member Kevin M. Bohacs, one of the winners of this year’s Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award, in part for his work in developing concepts that have literally trained thousands of geologists around the world through his lectures, workshops, symposiums and, mostly, through his field manual “Field Safety in Uncontrolled Environments – A Process-Based Guidebook.”

Bohacs, a senior research scientist with ExxonMobil Upstream Research Co., laughs when told his work, for many, like Ron Boyd, of NGU (Geological Survey of Norway), is the bible in the field, for he readily admits he didn’t re-invent the wheel.

In fact, Bohacs, who also is known for his groundbreaking work in detailed stratigraphic and sedimentology characterization of mudstones, says modestly his motivation in writing it was not so much that there was a lack of safety at ExxonMobil (far from it) – or the industry.

Just a lack of uniformity.

“Our field activities at the time were handled more on a company-by-company basis,” he says, “and although all were conducted safely, there were significant differences in processes and communications of requirements.”

And that’s how the field safety book came to be.

“We saw an opportunity to share field safety lessons across the corporation,” Bohacs said, “and to standardize and streamline the process.”

Getting Organized

What Bohacs and his co-author, Stephen R. Oliveri, did was devise a uniform field safety process that took a systematic approach to preparation, execution and learning for the next time – company wide, based on input from most of their experienced field instructors and workers.

“It wasn’t so much developing new material,” he emphasized, “as it was organizing, updating and streamlining what we had already been doing for more than 40 years.”

And that’s when it got interesting.

“We documented this in a handbook for internal use at the company and started teaching the process to our affiliate companies around the world.”

The world liked what it was reading, so Bohacs had an idea.

“I suggested that we publish our handbook, so other organizations could see where we were coming from and encourage an equivalent systematic approach.”

It worked.

“Our vice president at the time, Carlos Dengo (AAPG member), convinced AAPG to publish it (it didn’t take much persuasion), and the rest is, um, history.”

Taking It to the Streets

It became clear almost immediately that what benefited ExxonMobil would soon benefit others.

“We needed this handbook because there was really no other publication available that addressed, in a systematic and scalable process, the wide range of field activities that we conduct,” he said. “Our activities run the gamut from walking on paved trails at national parks to diving on reefs and camping in very remote areas.”

As an advanced first aid/CPR instructor trainer for the American Red Cross since the early 1970s, Bohacs clearly understands not only the importance of safety, but the importance of training those involved in delivering that safety.

“There are indeed several very good books on safety in the field, but they tend to concentrate more on detailed tactics, prescriptive do’s and don’ts for specific settings or activities (such as mountain climbing, diving or backcountry trekking),” he said. “We took a more strategic approach, basing the book on our process – of thinking about what hazards one faces, preparing for the field based on those hazards and risks, conducting field activities in light of those risks and documenting what one learns to be used the next time.”

Industry-wide, Bohacs said he is relatively happy with the focus on safety, even if that focus is somewhat against the grain.

“It is true that there was a certain ‘cowboy’ mentality that many of us experienced in our early field activities that continues to some degree to this day,” he said, “but there is a widespread realization that to maintain our access to field sites and garner support to conduct the essential training activities in the field, we all need to be safe.”

Think About It

So, how successful is the book?

Bohacs said it’s not just a sense that it’s working – he’s got data.

“The charm of our system at ExxonMobil is that we document every aspect of our field activities and can show exactly how and how often participants are injured,” he said.

“Over the last 10 years of running the system, we have more than one million work hours of experience that we share with the short course participants,” he continued, “statistics that show, in any given year, it can be two to four times safer to be in the field than in a typical office (based on injuries reported to OSHA).”

Bohacs, who said a new edition is in the works, is honored to be receiving the Berg award, adding it is especially gratifying because of the value the AAPG community places on the role of research in developing technology to make our search for resources more effective, efficient and environmentally sound.

Something else, too: He meets people affected by his work – and by his book.

“My favorite reaction to the guidebook and process was based on how we teach the short course, where we make the participants really think about what could happen on the trips they lead (during the classroom day), and then subject them to dealing with many common issues (during the field day of the course),” he said.

“I saw this particular participant on the Monday morning following the short course (on Thursday and Friday), and asked him how was his weekend.

“‘Terrible,’ he said. “‘I’ve been leading field trips for 17 years and I hadn’t thought about half the stuff you brought up in class – stuff that almost happened or that I could very easily see could have happened. I lost a lot of sleep …’

“I was sorry that he had a terrible weekend,” Bohacs said, “but glad that he got it.”

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