The risk of out-of-date technical information

Oil from the BP drill site spreads in the Gulf of Mexico
NASA photo

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been an ongoing ecological disaster. In analyzing what went wrong, there were obviously problems far and wide. But one of them seems to have been outdated and inaccurate technical documentation.

May 12 — In the days after an oil well spun out of control in the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers tried to activate a huge piece of underwater safety equipment but failed because the device had been so altered that diagrams BP got from the equipment’s owner didn’t match the supposedly failsafe device’s configuration, congressional investigators said Wednesday….

Who ordered the alterations in the blowout preventer, the 500,000-pound mass of gears and hydraulic valves that sits atop and underwater well and is intended to snap the pipe if disaster threatens, was the subject of dispute at Wednesday’s hearing.

Transocean, the owner of the blowout preventer and of the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig, said any alterations would have come at BP’s instigation; BP, which owns the well and hired Transocean to drill it, said it had never sought the changes.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said the changes prevented BP’s engineers from activating a “variable bore ram” intended to close tight around the pipe and seal it.

“When they investigated why their attempts failed to activate the bore ram,” Stupak said of BP engineers, “they learned that the device had been modified. A useless test ram — not the variable bore ram — had been connected to the socket that was supposed to activate the variable bore ram.”

“An entire day’s worth of precious time had been spent engaging rams that closed the wrong way.”

Stupak said that BP officials told subcommittee investigators that “after the accident, they asked Transocean for drawings of the blowout preventer.”

“Because of the modifications, the drawings they received didn’t match the structure on the ocean floor,” Stupak said. “BP said they wasted many hours figuring this out.”

via Oil spill: BP had wrong diagram to close blowout preventer | McClatchy.

Mind you, I’m not saying a technical writer did anything wrong; for all I know the documentation was perfect when it was issued. But for some reason it fell out of date, so when they were needed, they were useless. Documentation is a part of the product. If the product is modified, the documentation must be modified to match; otherwise, you end up with–well, oil on your face.

Not keeping the docs up to date is potentially a huge risk.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a retired technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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