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Aberdeen Press & Journal: Safety the dialogue of the deaf: *Touch Fuck All – the Brent Bravo Scandal

Published October 2006

EXTRACT: Two young men were killed on Brent Bravo on September 11, 2003, asphyxiated while working in the utilities shaft 70m below deck level. They had been sent down to fix a leaking hydrocarbon line to which a neoprene patch had been affixed by bulldog grips. A leak of oily water soon transformed into a torrent of gas and condensate following the failure upstream of non-return and emergency shutdown valves.

Radio communication failure, due to shelved maintenance work (cost-cutting), contributed to the delay in attempting evacuation. The volume of gas released, had it ignited, was sufficient to cause failure of the concrete leg. An engineering analysis has since confirmed the likelihood that the top-sides in which 156 persons were resident would have toppled to the seabed. Possible sources of ignition, supposedly EX-rated, but damaged, battery connections and loose light fittings were subsequently found adjacent to where the condensate had escaped.

IN THE four years leading up to the fatalities – and the nearest the UK offshore industry has come to a second multiple-death disaster on the scale of Piper Alpha – the safety representatives struggled to have remedied a horrendous catalogue of safety failings. It was the dialogue of the deaf.

Safety critical valves and actuators known to be malfunctioning were not repaired or replaced so as not to interrupt production.

Unknown to the safety representatives at the time, an internal Shell audit report warned senior managers that test reports on the valves had been falsified.

Safety Critical Elements maintenance was 14% compliant against an internally reported figure of 96%. The effect was to dupe the HSE into believing that all was well.

In 1999, the safety representatives, having failed to get satisfaction from   installation management, directly and through the safety committee sought help and advice from OILC. In particular, the representatives were deeply worried about the “TFA” policy recently implemented by Shell on the four installations of the Brent Field.

TFA – touch nothing  – was intended to ensure that no maintenance interventions were carried out that had the potential to interrupt production and applied to safety critical equipment as well as production plant.

Shell had just negotiated a lucrative gas nomination contract. To maintain revenue streams and avoid punitive penalties for failure to deliver, the Brent installations would be required to maintain very high and unprecedented levels of gross availability. In 1999, the Brent facilities supplied about 33% of UK gas needs.

On top of this, the company resolved to cut operating costs drastically and formalised the TFA principles into a “business improvement plan” (OBIP) aimed at reducing maintenance cost by 50%. Contractors Wood Group, Amec and KBR (Halliburton) were to be rewarded by an additional £70million over seven years, partly on the basis of what maintenance they could contrive not to do.

Safety representatives’ and trade union OILC protestations made to the employing contractors’ managers were rebuffed. The contractors were not prepared to jeopardise an important prospective income stream – echoes of Piper Alpha.

THE ARTICLE

With oil corporations claiming they really do make it their top priority and workers believing otherwise, safety is an emotive issue.

Ronnie McDonald paints a disturbing picture

IN THE months following the Piper Alpha tragedy, industrial unrest spread across the North Sea. In the summer of 1989, strikers occupied Forties field installations.  On the list of demands by the strikers was the extension offshore of the UK’s 1977 Health & Safety Regulations providing for safety representatives and committees in the workplace. Offshore contractors’ employees, no longer content to be marginalised, wanted dialogue.

Responding in apparently conciliatory tone, John Browne, BP’s yet to be ennobled North Sea supremo, said he would co-operate with any legitimate party on safety so long as that party was prepared to “work with the grain”. In other words, challenge would be tolerated only to a limited extent and on terms acceptable to the company.

Fast forward to September, 2006, when BP’s former head of pipeline corrosion in Alaska refused to testify under oath to the congressional committee investigating the cause of the oil spill on the Prudhoe Bay pipeline earlier this year.

By invoking the Fifth Amendment, cross-examination was avoided on why corrosion had not been detected and dealt with earlier. Had testimony been given, the committee would have discovered what BP’s Alaskan workers have known for years. The pipeline was not monitored for corrosion and workers protesting about cutbacks in essential maintenance were sidelined.

An engineering assessment produced in 2001 specifically warned on inadequate corrosion monitoring, but critical comments were removed from the final report. Uninterrupted oil flow was the order of the day and worker warnings of danger cut across the grain.

On September 13, a contrite Bob Malone, chairman and president of BP America, and Steve Marshall, president of BP Exploration Alaska, appeared before the committee and pledged to raise the spending on Prudhoe Bay maintenance to $195million in 2007, a nearly fourfold increase from 2004 spending levels, so vindicating workforce concerns.

BP’s recurring inability to accept, undiluted, the message from below, evident both in Browne’s offer of restricted dialogue to North Sea workers and, more recently, the rejection of Alaskan workers’ legitimate complaints, demonstrates disdain for the crucial contribution to safety that workers are capable of making.

At the very least, ignoring valuable first-hand intelligence on the actual state of affairs at the work site is just plain careless and seriously diminishes the management effort.

In the meantime, 50% production shortfall from the US’s biggest oilfield is causing pain. It may take six months or more to remedy. Alaska draws a huge chunk of its income from oil royalties and pipeline tariffs and the locals are sensitive to environmental degradation caused by oil company activities. The industry’s claims that it can safely develop the Arctic
 
Wildlife Refuge, possibly the last giant oilfield on the continent look less convincing. Intense dialogue is now the order of the day.

Whatever management gives systematic attention and priority to determine the culture of an organisation. If safe operation is visibly management’s overarching goal then a safety-first social mindset ultimately informs the behaviour of everyone in the organisation. Deviants are policed and corrected by peers and respectful frankness is the norm In so far as there is a coherent definition of “safety culture”, that is it.

On the other hand, if safe operation is subordinate to production mistrust, lack of care and risk-taking become the cultural norms.

This is the lesson BP is attempting to relearn in the aftermath of the March 23, 2005, explosion at its Texas City BP refinery. Fifteen workers were killed and 170 injured. The event was just one of five significant incidents in BP’s Houston-area installations in a span of 11 months, causing in total 17 deaths. The company paid a record $21.3million fine to the US Occupational Health & Safety Administration as a consequence of 300 separate violations of federal and state laws.

In a painfully frank reference to the Texas City BP calamity, John Mogford, senior group VP, safety & operations, told the Global Congress on Process Safety, April 24, 2006: “Poor vertical communication in the refinery meant there was no adequate early warning system of problems and no independent means of understanding the deteriorating standards in the plant through thorough audit of the installation.”

In fact, the contrary was the case. A potentially very effective early warning and audit system existed at the facility had the company been inclined to use it – the workforce.

Mogford confirmed that meaningful dialogue had broken down, noting that the working environment at Texas City “had eroded to one characterised by resistance to change and lacking of trust, motivation and a sense of purpose”.

BP had earlier released an anonymous survey in which Texas City BP workers confirmed perceptions that the top priority was making money and that managers neglected safety in the months before the explosion.

Said one interviewee: “Safety did not seem to be a priority, particularly compared to cost management.”

THE company’s profit-first attitude has vexed the federal regulators. The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said BP’s poor management posed an “imminent hazard” to its workers and the public, and that the Texas City incident was the product of “systemic lapses in organisational decision-making, safety oversight, and safety culture”.

The board ordered BP to appoint an independent review panel and to ensure that representatives of labour participate, the first time in the board’s eight-year history that it has taken such an action. Former US Secretary of State James Baker chairs the review, the terms of reference of which are broadened to include BP operations worldwide, including the UKCS. SAFETY committees and workforce safety representatives became a feature of the UKCS in 1989. Contrary to popular myth, the regulations requiring every installation have a safety committee are not the result of a recommendation made by Lord Cullen following the Piper Alpha disaster.

The regulations pre-date Cullen by nearly a year and owe their genesis more to worker, trade union and public demands that workers have a direct say in how health and safety is managed.

The strike on BP’s Forties and other installations was an extension of a campaign for basic human rights for contract workers pre-dating the disaster by at least a decade.

Sixteen years on, the safety committee and safety representatives’ regulations do make an effective contribution to the management of safety on the majority of installations. However, in certain cases, there is sufficient evidence to show the safety committee is little more, than a fig leaf shielding an unsafe regime from proper scrutiny. Safe operation is a poor second to maximising production and the safety committee is in no position to effect remedy.

This is not to imply that workers serving on an ineffective committee are in any way complicit. They are not. Rather, it reflects the compromise nature of regulations that ostensibly empower individual representatives while leaving intact managers’ prerogative to run things as they see fit. Yes, a mechanism for dialogue, even worker dissent where needed, but the SI 971 regulations are heavily circumscribed by the realities of a “contractorised and casualised” employment regime.

Persistence in pushing a message to which a manager is no longer receptive easily pigeonholes the safety representative as someone unable to “work with the grain”. That’s a definite career limiter in an industry where upwards of nine out of 10 persons are employed by contractors and the roadside is littered with the corpses of shot messengers.

Protections and opportunities for effectiveness are further diminished by the exclusion of direct trade union involvement, although individual representatives may request training or advice from whomever they choose.

In reality, the effectiveness or otherwise of the installation safety committee depends on managerial and production priorities. That’s not a problem where the prevailing ethos is genuinely one of safe operation, even should deferred production occasionally be required to achieve it, and where openness, trust and shared values typify relationships between the parties.

The safety committee arrangements can be immensely useful in making a good situation even better. However, where safety is subordinate to production and the system operates to deflect workforce safety concerns, safety committees are worse than useless.
Two young men were killed on Brent Bravo on September 11, 2003, asphyxiated while working in the utilities shaft 70m below deck level. They had been sent down to fix a leaking hydrocarbon line to which a neoprene patch had been affixed by bulldog grips. A leak of oily water soon transformed into a torrent of gas and condensate following the failure upstream of non-return and emergency shutdown valves.

Radio communication failure, due to shelved maintenance work (cost-cutting), contributed to the delay in attempting evacuation. The volume of gas released, had it ignited, was sufficient to cause failure of the concrete leg. An engineering analysis has since confirmed the likelihood that the top-sides in which 156 persons were resident would have toppled to the seabed. Possible sources of ignition, supposedly EX-rated, but damaged, battery connections and loose light fittings were subsequently found adjacent to where the condensate had escaped.

IN THE four years leading up 10 the fatalities – and the nearest the UK offshore industry has com. to a second multiple-death disaster on the scale of Piper Alpha – the safety representatives struggled to have remedied a horrendous catalogue of safety failings. It was the dialogue of the deaf.

Safety critical valves and actuators known to be malfunctioning were not repaired or replaced so as not to interrupt production.

Unknown to the safety representatives at the time, an internal Shell audit report warned senior managers that test reports on the valves had been falsified.

Safety Critical Elements maintenance was 14% compliant against an internally reported figure of 96%. The effect was to dupe the HSE into believing that all was well.

In 1999, the safety representatives, having failed to get satisfaction from   installation management, directly and through the safety committee sought help and advice from OILC. In particular, the representatives were deeply worried about the “TFA” policy recently implemented by Shell on the four installations of the Brent Field.

TFA – touch nothing – was intended to ensure that no maintenance interventions were carried out that had the potential to interrupt production and applied to safety critical equipment as well as production plant.

Shell had just negotiated a lucrative gas nomination contract. To maintain revenue streams and avoid punitive penalties for failure to deliver, the Brent installations would be required to maintain very high and unprecedented levels of gross availability. In 1999, the Brent facilities supplied about 33% of UK gas needs.

On top of this, the company resolved to cut operating costs drastically and formalised the TFA principles into a “business improvement plan” (OBIP) aimed at reducing maintenance cost by 50%. Contractors Wood Group, Amec and KBR (Halliburton) were to be rewarded by an additional £70million over seven years, partly on the basis of what maintenance they could contrive not to do.

Safety representatives’ and trade union OILC protestations made to the employing contractors’ managers were rebuffed. The contractors were not prepared to jeopardise an important prospective income stream – echoes of Piper Alpha.

*Comment in headline added by ShellNews.net. The acronym “TFA” stood for “Touch Fuck All”. Since two people lost their lives because of the policy it seems appropriate to prove the full version.

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