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Royal Dutch Shell Plc .com: Union calls for safety probe at Shell UK North Sea operations

From MarketWatch
Last Update: 3:40 PM ET Jun 23, 2006

LONDON (MarketWatch) — Amicus, one of the U.K.’s largest trade unions, is calling for a public review of Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s (RDSA) U.K. North Sea oil platforms after new allegations over safety surfaced this week, a union official said Friday.

A Shell spokeswoman on Friday denied reports that the company had compromised safety to pursue higher production at the facilities.

But Graham Tran, a regional officer at Amicus who represent oil workers, said “we are calling for an independent government review” on the conclusions of a 1999 report in which senior engineer Bill Campbell, at the time a consultant for Shell, warned safety measures had been overlooked.

The report was leaked to the Times newspaper and trade magazine Upstream, which said Campbell reiterated his concerns to Shell in 2004.

The 1999 report is especially sensitive for Shell. A gas leak blamed on safety lapses led to the deaths of two workers on a North Sea platform, Brent Bravo, in September 2003. The company was fined a record GBP900,000 last year over the incident.

A Shell spokeswoman said the company took Campbell’s “concerns very seriously,” but after investigation “concluded his perception was not supported by the evidence.”

A spokesman for U.K. regulator Health and Safety Executive said Campbell had given the agency a copy of the report after the deaths of the workers in 2003.

Tran, however, criticized the HSE and said a lack of resources had prevented the watchdog from detecting safety problems at Shell facilities in spite of a warning from unions. He said the regulator had conducted an enquiry and gave its conclusions weeks before the deaths but failed to see imminent danger.

The HSE spokesman said the unions had warned about issues at other platforms, but not at Bravo. He said the claims had been investigated and, as a result, “Shell reviewed their manning levels and subsequently increased the number of technicians offshore across all their platforms.”

The Shell spokeswoman said that Shell has since launched $1 billion worth of programs to improve safety. The HSE spokesman said Shell “has improved” its track record.

Industry safety is in the spotlight following the deaths last year of 15 workers at Texas refinery operated by BP PLC (BP) and a massive fire that destroyed the Buncefield oil depot, in Hertfordshire, U.K., managed by a joint venture of Total SA (TOT) and Chevron Corp. (CVX).

Another HSE spokesman said the watchdog is currently investigating whether there are safety problems at the BP-operated Tullos oil depot, next to Aberdeen.

He said the issue came to the regulator’s attention after it received a letter last Thursday from a member of parliament, Anne Begg, claiming the shift system used by workers could lead to a Buncefield-type disaster.

The existence of the letter is confirmed by a statement on the MP’s Web site, saying that the workers are at risk of being responsible for accidents due to exhaustion. It added that BP is investigating the matter.

A BP spokeswoman said the company is looking into the matter and is talking to contractors about the shift patterns.

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