Knut Ove Kristensen – veteran manager with his heart in HSE

person Kjersti Melberg, Norwegian Petroleum Museum. Based on an interview with Kristensen on 12 September 2019.
More than forty-five years of service on Ekofisk underpin Knut Ove Kristensen’s status as a pioneering leader on the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS). His involvement began in 1974 when he switched from a career at sea to become a process technician for Phillips Petroleum.
— Knut Ove Kristensen in conversation with process apprentice Fredrik Svindland Theissen (left) and operations manager Siri Friestad. Photo: ConocoPhillips
© Norsk Oljemuseum

Early promotion and trust followed, and he served as an offshore installation manager (OIM) for more than 33 years in the Greater Ekofisk Area. 

Plain-speaking

Kristensen recalls that he was a committed young man in the early 1970s – an open, curious and plain-speaking person who was not afraid to criticise health, safety and environmental (HSE) conditions. 

The working style he encountered offshore suited him well, ready as he was to speak his mind. “I’ve undoubtedly been a loud-mouth. I’m used to having zealous people in the Family With grand-parents and a father who served as mayors, which is perhaps why I don’t quite know when to keep quiet.” 

Thinking back to working conditions when he started in petroleum industry, he recalls living on Gulftide, Norway’s first production facility, and says it was fascinating. 

“This was an old jack-up rig, with the helideck installed on planks. We were four to a cabin, and things were pretty shabby. Primitive conditions prevailed, to put it mildly.” 

The workplace at the time was characterised by the presence of the Americans, and confusions frequently arose between them and those who were not particularly good at English. 

“It was very unusual,” reflects Kristensen. “We were trained up by the Americans, of course – they were the ones who knew about this business. There were a lot of misunderstandings among the Norwegians, people who pretended to understand the messages they were given about what jobs to do. Both serious and funny situations occured. Those of us who’d been to sea undoubtedly had an advantage in that we knew the language a bit better. The rest were fishermen and smallholders and ordinary people from the Districts in Western Norway who didn’t speak much English. Offshore terminology wasn’t easy for people who didn’t have the language.” 

He quickly grasped the ethos in this working environment. “The Americans often only gave you one chance. If you showed that you could cope with your job, you won trust, new opportunities and more responsibility.” 

Given his background in the Norwegian merchant marine, however, Kristensen reacted negatively to a number of the conditions which prevailed at the time. “I was one of the youngest then, and that wasn’t always easy because there were a number of older and more experienced people who felt they had a ‘monopoly of brains’,” he comments. “And quite a lot were pushy. “Working conditions weren’t orderly, with proper employment contracts like I was used to from my time at sea thanks to the Norwegian Seamen’s Union – unionisation and the like.” 

He adds that he is grateful for everything he learned from the Americans, but that they at the time were not particularly keen on unions and the Norwegian concept of collaboration between employers and employees. “They thought it was enough to enter into agreements on a mantoman basis or with the company, and saw no need to organise this via trade unions.” 

Involved

Given his views, it is not surprising that he became involved at an early stage with the Ekofisk Committee by serving as secretary to Øyvind Krokvik, who was first head of this union. 

Kristensen explains that he has been committed throughout his career to involvement and worker participation and to good collaboration between unions, the safety service and management. That was particularly important during the early years of the petroleum industry on the NCS, he emphasises. His experience of union work accompanied him into various senior posts on Ekofisk. 

With a gleam in his eye, he says the following about his promotion: “Acquiring managerial responsibility early on may have had something to do with my involvement with the union. Putting in place systems for worker participation and collaboration was particularly important in the early years of Norway’s offshore industry. 

“I played a part in establishing the parameters which govern industrial relations out on the field today, with unions and the safety delegate service.

I became the country’s youngest OIM at the age of 24, and served as a manager out there for 41 years.

They may have thought ‘he’s more trouble than we need, so we’ll just promote him up and then be quit him.” 

Kristensen reports that he has been preoccupied throughout his managerial career with ensuring that “things are genuine” – that a manager must understand and personally be part of “the home team”. He explains that as the ability to understand a position from the standpoint of the various parties involved, and adds that he has thrived offshore with a living and working community. This he defines as one “where you get close to people, where everyone is seen and heard, and where they understand that they play an important role in reaching a common goal”.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Pionèr, ONS 2018: 8. 

It did not take him long to learn how to adjust his management style to the offshore environment, but admits that this approach has developed over the years. The leadership culture which dominated on the platforms during the early years undoubtedly influenced me a bit. I was probably very inflexible and saw things in black-and-white, but have become more judicious and considered over time. 

“Nobody left my office earlier in any doubt about what I meant. I thought that saved a lot of time. But I can’t have been too bad, or I wouldn’t have held down the job for so long.” 

Strategy

Kristensen’s long service makes him unique on Ekofisk, and he has thought a lot about management. His expressed strategy has been to get people on side over HSE through commitment and integrity – and without any “second agenda”. 

“Working in the Ekofisk Complex with 600-700 people is an unusual experience,” he observes. “I held the same job as the man in charge for 20 years. “That means you’re ‘on stage’ the whole time, and attend 10-12 HSE meetings every week. You’ve got to get people committed, drive a doctrine and sell a message. This involves getting what people have to concentrate on implanted in their hearts and minds so they can contribute to their own safety and that of others, he explains. 

“You must be genuine, and your own integrity must be order. You have to build trust, and not least display respect for your audience.” 

“What’s been a powerful help for me is that I’m on the home team. I’ve been a skilled worker myself and have been through most things.” 

Kristensen emphasises several times that he regarded the unions, their elected officers and the safety delegates as a resource in this work. 

“The tripartite collaboration pursued in the petroleum industry between government, companies and unions functions very well,” he concludes.  “This is about informing and involving people, and ensuring that decisions aren’t taken over their heads. Our company has achieved that in a positive way.” 

“The fact that Ekofisk is a mature field and ConocoPhillips is a mature company also has something to do with it. Cooperation with the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway and other authorities is also very good.” 

Kristensen denies that union-management collaboration has become more strained during the downturns experienced by the petroleum industry. “Strained and strained – we must adjust to external conditions and try to protect the jobs needed to safeguard the industry. But nobody’s ever been made redundant by this company. That’s worthy of respect.

Downsizing has been solved with severance packages. People have often been given early retirement. From that perspective, it’s been a privilege to work for an operator company.” 

Commitment

After almost 46 years with the company, Kristensen’s commitment to continuous improvement, good safety and high production regularity is as strong as ever. Recognising that substantial progress has been made in the HSE area over the years he has worked in the industry, he affirms that this issue is closest to his heart. 

“We’ve staked out the path as we’ve advanced. We don’t accept incidents and accidents. We take a completely different approach to risk today. Accidents which do occur are used for all they’re worth in an effort to say to ourselves: ‘this has actually happened, but it’s our duty to learn from it’.” 

Kristensen has personally experienced accidents and injuries at close hand, and thereby knows the importance of preventive safety work to protect people, the environment and equipment. 

He will never forget some incidents – and immediately mentions the Alexander L Kielland disaster in 1980 With 123 casualties. An article in local daily Stavanger Aftenblad as recently as 2012, with photos of all those who have died on duty on the NCS since 1966, made a big impression on him. 

Britain’s Piper Alpha explosion in 1988, when 169 people were killed, is another major incident he recalls. His conclusion is that the petroleum sector has not been a Promised Land for all. 

The former OIM proudly mentions a number of HSE improvements which have partly been the result of technological advances in the industry during his time. But he warns about hazards which still exist, such as vessels drifting out of control. A well-known incident on New Year’s Eve in 2015 made a particularly strong impression on him. 

A 150000 tons, unmanned barge had come loose and was threatening to collide with installations on Ekofisk. Several hundred workers from this field and neighbouring Valhall were flown to safety and production was shut down. The barge passed the platforms at a distance of about one nautical mile, but Kristensen found the actual incident and the threat it posed frightening. 

“Drifting vessels which come loose in rough weather, which can get pretty challenging out there, are perhaps the biggest hazard we now face. Luckily we have good procedures to handle such challenges.” 

Reminder

Such incidents and near-misses are regarded by Kristensen as a reminder that the petroleum industry is under an obligation to learn the necessary lessons. He points to the potential for learning from other industries, and emphasises the good collaboration which prevails across the company. Mechanical handling provides a good example, he says. 

“Things can go terribly wrong. After fatal accidents in the 2000s, we established a work group which held monthly meetings. I took part as technical manager for these facilities. We involved everyone in the logistics chain on land, at the base and on the platforms. That attracted so much attention and such great improvements that we’ve now managed to prevent virtually all undesirable conditions in this area.” 

Despite good systems and routines, colleagues on the installations are Kristensen’s most important reminder of the responsibility he has had as an OIM on Ekofisk. 

“Experiences from my early years meant that I have become particularly attentive to HSE – and I was involved in quite a lot, of course. But this mostly relates to the individual who gets injured on your watch and on your shift – in other words, the people you work with. They stood on the drill floor and worked so that the sparks flew around their ears. Having only two-three fingers used to confer ‘status’. 

He notes that improvements have a lot to do with technological progress. Much risk has been eliminated by automating a great deal of the work which used to be done manually. 

“But we still have more than enough opportunities to injure ourselves. This has a lot to do with awareness – being present in the real world, making sure you’re focused. That’s actually expected for 12 hours at a time.” 

A respectful attitude to his big responsibilities and duties was maintained by Kristensen to his last working day. “Emergency preparedness is like being at war – you do what you’re told. But you feel it. Although we’ve trained so long at this, you’re still conscious of being responsible for several hundred lives. Taking a wrong decision could … You must act on the basis of the information you’ve got, not what you know many months later. When you tackle it, however, you get a sense of mastery at solving the problem together with an outstanding emergency response organisation on land. Ultimately, though, you’re the skipper on your own ship.” 

Time to reflect

Kristensen has finally retired from ConocoPhillips, giving him time to reflect over his own commitment and lifestyle offshore as it affected him and his family. 

“For my own part, I must say that it’s had a price,” he admits. “I couldn’t get involved in politics or organisations, for example. I was only at home half of the time. I followed up the kids when I was at home, of course, but never felt I could be active in associations and so on, contribute the way I’d have liked. 

He has found the transition to retirement unaccustomed in many ways. “Simply remembering that I’m not going offshore is a big change, for example. I had to deal with so many challenges right up to my last day at work that it’s been impossible to prepare anything. I ought to have thought about and planned retirement a bit better, of course, but I’ll undoubtedly find something to do when I want to.” 

Published 21. October 2019   •   Updated 25. October 2019
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