Staying in the zone: offshore drillers situation awareness

Ruby Roberts, Rhona Flin, Jennifer Cleland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Objective: The aim of this study was to identify the cognitive components required for offshore drillers to develop and maintain situation awareness (SA) while controlling subsea hydrocarbon wells.

Background: SA issues are often identified as contributing factors to drilling incidents, most recently in the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Yet, there is a limited body of research investigating SA in the offshore drilling environment.

Method: In the first study, critical incident interviews were conducted with 18 experienced drilling personnel. Transcripts were subjected to theory-driven thematic analysis, producing a preliminary cognitive framework of how drillers develop and maintain SA during well control. In the second study, 24 hr of observations (in vivo and video) of drillers managing a high fidelity well-control simulator were analyzed to further develop the framework.

Results: The cognitive components that enable drillers to build up an understanding of what is happening in the wellbore and surrounding environment, to predict how this understanding may develop, were identified. These components included cue recognition, interpretation of information in conjunction with the current mental model, and projection through mental
simulation. Factors such as distracters, expectations, and information sharing between crew members can both positively and negatively influence the drillers’ SA.

Conclusion: The findings give a preliminary understanding into the components of drillers’ SA, highlighting the importance of SA for safe and effective performance and indicating that Endsley’s model of SA can be
applied to drilling.

Application: The results have consequences for
training, task management, and work design recommendations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)573-590
Number of pages18
JournalHuman Factors
Issue number4
Early online date15 Dec 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015

Bibliographical note

This article is based on a doctoral research project of the first author, which is sponsored by an international drilling rig operator. The views presented are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the position or policy of the
sponsor. The authors wish to thank the industrial supervisor, drillers, assistant drillers, tool pushers, and all those who added to the project for their contribution.


  • drilling
  • cognitive task analysis
  • nontechnical skills
  • expertise


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