By Upstream staff
THE UK’s offshore safety watchdog, the Health&Safety Executive (HSE), is shown in Bill Campbell’s evidence to be a deeply entrenched and secretive body, writes Christopher Hopson.
He believes it has failed in its public duty to ensure proper verification of offshore safety systems, thereby increasing the risk levels on many of the UK’s ageing North Sea installations.
The implications from Campbell’s 1999 Platform Safety Management Review (PSMR) of Shell’s Northern Business Unit installations, and a Shell internal audit from November 2003, is that the current legislative regime has failed in its primary aim of reducing the risks to people working offshore.
After the July 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, Lord Cullen entrusted the UK oil and gas industry to take control of its own affairs, putting the responsibility for regulating offshore safety under the control of the HSE.
Rather than recommending a prescriptive regulatory framework, he trusted operators to prepare their own case for safety, commonly referred to as a Safety Case.
It is the operator, not the HSE, which decides what is important and what must be done in order to make an installation safe. Consequently, they are required to analyse the residual risks on their offshore installations and demonstrate to the regulator, and to their employees, that the operating risks are ‘as low as is reasonably practicable’ (ALARP).
The systems used to achieve this should be tested, or verified, by appointing an Independent and Competent Person through internal organisational means or the employment of an external body such as DNV, Lloyds Register or Bureau Veritas to ensure they meet pre-determined performance standards.
However, such a regime depends on operators acting in an open and frank manner, acting honourably and not being deceitful in demonstrating operating risks are ALARP. It is alleged, as in the case of Shell’s Brent field and others, that these checks have simply not worked and some oil companies have exploited the trust placed in them.
“The bottom line was that in 1999 safety on Brent Bravo was being run at above the ALARP levels published in its Safety Case. In fact it was being operated in the intolerable region,” claims Campbell.
He believes oil companies have no option but to “keep up” with the growing problem of corrosion and internal erosion on older installations.
“The problem is many North Sea platforms are now 25 to 30 years old and have reached the end of their design life.
“Incrementally, on a day-to-day basis, the risks are steadily increasing, and essentially there is nothing we can do about it, apart from shutting down production for long periods of time,” he says.
Campbell claims the Brent platforms have probably now reached the stage where they are no longer maintainable at ALARP levels and never will be again.
“They really have to shut all the platforms down for a year and replace all the hydrocarbon pipework and vessels, which have corroded and eroded, but nobody is going to do that unless they are forced,” he says.
He points out that one unfortunate side effect for UK safety as a result of Cullen’s recommendations was that the HSE has ended up “twice removed” from the offshore hardware.
“Effectively, the HSE is only there to regulate the management systems of the operator. So instead of having an inspection function with all those skills, it is essentially acting as an auditor, which is auditing business controls,” Campbell adds.
He believes the proper operation of the UK industry’s safety verification schemes has entirely failed. During his PSMR audit, Campbell claims to have discovered lots of false reporting when he questioned Shell Expro and the independent verification body staff to ask them how they tested the validity of information coming from offshore installations.
Under interview, Campbell says many confirmed the verification information on Brent was just not at all accurate.
Shell Expro’s internal verification body, known as HSE/4, was found to lack influence and authority. The PSMR found staff were aware of the manifest shortcomings of the verification scheme but were unable to influence matters. Therefore they appeared to passively accept the situation.
Campbell says that when he asked inspectors from an independent external verification body whether they had ever signed off equipment that was not working, they confirmed they had done so.
He claims they simply saw their role as verifying equipment against what the operator told them was their performance criteria.
Campbell claims that although the verification body seemed to be aware that there was ‘goal-widening’ regarding standards, it still signed off the equipment. “They simply declared they had no authority to question the efficacy of the standard,” says Campbell. “Under interview, they confirmed the whole verification scheme was a complete sham.”
The verification body allegedly claimed the HSE had not shown any interest in the offshore verification scheme, it had never met anyone from its Offshore Safety Division (OSD) in an official capacity and it had never been in touch to discuss the agency’s role in the verification process.
The verification body, just like HSE/4, admitted to having had difficulty in getting meetings with Brent asset manager David Bayliss and getting access to the Brent platforms.
Under interview with Campbell, the inspector also alleged that because he was bullied and coerced he had prematurely signed off paperwork indicating that offshore safety systems he knew to have defects were in order.
The inspector allegedly indicated it was quite common to find whole sections of Brent’s fire and gas systems inhibited and therefore unable to be tested at any time during his visit.
He was not aware of whether such large-scale inhibition of safety systems had been authorised, but was of the opinion such a modus operandi must increase the risks of a hydrocarbon event not being picked up and/or escalating out of control.
Campbell believes the OSD should have shown a much greater interest in taking an oversight of the whole verification process. He claims that by the time the HSE gets around to issuing improvement or even prohibition notices it is already too late.
“The OSD themselves don’t seem to fully understand their role under the Safety Case regulations. It wasn’t designed as some gentleman’s agreement to be made with operators that would allow the risks on offshore installations to get higher. It was to act to stop those risks from getting that high in the first place,” argues Campbell.
“When the offshore worker representation scheme envisaged by Cullen is failing and the operator and OSD are incompetent in ensuring actions to reduce ALARP are carried out in a timely fashion, then the whole offshore safety system is simply failing,” he claims.
The HSE claims that today it does have a different overall approach to verification than existed in 1999 and 2003, and that it does now engage with independent external agencies as well as UK North Sea operators.
The HSE tells Upstream in a statement: “Inspection techniques include witnessing of physical testing of safety critical plant and equipment against stated performance standards as well as interrogation of records and information generated by the independent verification bodies such as Lloyd’s Register and DNV.”
The HSE confirms it was not informed in 1999 of the results of Campbell’s PSMR audit. “The HSE became aware of the PSMR in October 2003 as the result of information provided by a Shell employee involved in the work, who felt the information could be of assistance in the investigation of Brent Bravo fatalities,” says the HSE.
The safety watchdog says it had “no reason to believe there was intended deception on the part of Shell” as the company had acknowledged its verification scheme was not giving it assurance of asset integrity.
“Companies would not be required to inform HSE, nor would HSE expect to be routinely told about the results of this work, although inspectors may, as part of their intervention strategies, discuss such reviews and look at actions taken to address the findings,” the HSE adds.
The HSE says during this time, although it was not made aware of the PSMR findings, it was concerned about the deteriorating condition of Shell’s installations in the Northern Business Unit.
“A team of inspectors critically examined, in depth, Shell’s verification system.
“As a result, HSE identified weaknesses in Shell’s management of safety and between 2000 and 2002 served eight improvement notices on the company including for Cormorant Alpha for failing to monitor the maintenance of safety critical systems adequately,” the HSE adds.
Campbell points out a weakness of Lord Cullen’s approach is that it was believed that once a Safety Case was granted to an operator “we would sail into some mythical steady state situation” on offshore installations where the risks would not change.
After the two deaths on Brent Bravo in 2003 and right up to 2005, Shell’s own database shows there does not seem to have been much improvement to the verification scheme. “Even now, there are still apparent anomalies in the reporting of tests on ESD valves and literally hundreds of fire and gas sensors fail to show danger when tested 290-odd on one Shell installation alone,” Campbell claims.
Campbell has, over recent years and particularly since the Brent Bravo deaths, asked the OSD to act on the fact Shell was, in his view, “criminally negligent”.