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Will stricter regulations improve disaster management? A discussion of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate's experience with the use of functional legal requirements

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During the relatively short history of the offshore petroleum industry in Norway, the Norwegian authorities have significantly changed their approach to regulating safety and emergency response. When it all started, back in the mid 1960s and early 1970s, the obvious choice for the newly born Norwegian Petroleum Authority was to prepare a number of detailed prescriptive regulations, similar to the approach that had been common in shipping for centuries. "Lifeboats to be equipped with four sets of wooden 16" rowing-oars, etc. The regulations had a heavy focus on detailed emergency response-systems and equipment. Back then, that choice was probably correct, supposing the companies dedicated themselves to "management by compliance". Over the years, these early prescriptive requirements have gradually been replaced by functionally oriented requirements allowing for extensive use of analysis and risk-based approaches, and for increased flexibility with regard to solutions. The intention was to stimulate and draw advantages from improvement processes in a modern industry dedicated to "management by objectives" to achieve the right focus on accident prevention rather than protection. The general experience with the new approach has been very good, even though there have been indications that a few might have pulled their risk-based approach somewhat too far. By putting too much of their effort into accident prevention only, they might have been blinded and misled into neglecting the adversity of the accidents, should they happen. History is, after all, still the best evidence that hazards cannot be completely prevented. This is why the new regulations of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate are now based on the principle of "defence in depth", which can shortly be explained as a combined risk- and vulnerability-based approach. The general and overruling functional requirement is to reduce risk until the costs become unreasonably disproportionate to the risk reducing effect. The risk reduction shall preferably be obtained by applying inherently safe designs, complemented by barriers to effectively prevent the escalation of failures, hazards and accidents and to limit possible harm. This paper will discuss the background to this change of approach in more detail, and will give a comprehensive presentation of the newly adopted principle of "defence in depth" as a drive towards improved risk management in the Norwegian offshore petroleum industry.

Keywords: safety culture, functional requirements, risk reduction, defence in depth, barriers, Norway, offshore petroleum industry

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