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Deadly concerns remain over Shell employee safety

By John Donovan

Who would have thought it possible that in this day and age one of the world’s biggest multinational corporations – Royal Dutch Shell Plc – could still get away with putting profits before the safety of its workers?

Despite the fact that recent Health & Safety sins have caught up with Shell, statistics show that its atrocious safety record is getting worse, not better.


THE BRENT BRAVO SCANDAL: In 1999, a specialist team led by an expert, Bill Campbell, carried out a safety audit on the Shell Brent Bravo platform. The audit revealed a deeply flawed management culture in which safety records were falsified and production was given a higher priority than the safety of Shell employees. Campbell claims he was subsequently removed from his oversight role because he continued to ring alarm bells about a failure to rectify the safety short-cuts his audit had exposed. This included a scandalous “Touch Fuck All” policy tacitly endorsed by a Shell EP executive, Malcolm Brinded, who failed to act.  Brinded turned a blind eye to Campbell’s warnings and two Shell workers paid with their lives in a subsequent huge release of gas in 2003.  Shell was fined £900,000 by the Scottish authorities for admitted breaches of Health & Safety regulations which resulted in the avoidable deaths. Although the fine was record breaking, the amount was insignificant compared to the multi-billion dollar quarterly profits Shell regularly makes.

THE WARFFUM EXPLOSION: In May 2005, there were two more fatalities, this time as a result of a water condensate tank explosion at a NAM location near Warffum in Holland. The two victims were contractors working for a contractor company (GTI) on maintenance and construction activities. NAM is a joint Shell/Exxon facility. Last week, a court in The Netherlands heard that directors of NAM and GTI had admitted to systemic faults. According to a news report ‘There was a collective blindness’ – apparently a contagious condition among Shell management. The prosecution has asked for substantial fines to be imposed. It all sounds very reminiscent of the Brent Bravo scandal. We did attempt to contact the NAM PR department and the MD for comment but only received an out of office reply.

Links to relevant news reports in Dutch:

Information about the Dutch case was sent to us by a NAM insider. The following is an extract from their comments: –

“All people involved know the incident was the result of a systemic management failure, exactly like in Brent. All people that do actual work are getting so tired of all the lookers on and politicians (mostly Americans) that they are breaking and giving up. Botts is very worried, he was the mastermind of the EPE organisation that enabled all these systemic failures.”

We had hoped after reading a leaked email from Royal Dutch Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer that Shell management was determined to change its ways and address the “systemic failures”. We published the leaked email in July 2006 less than 24 hours after he sent it. It arrived from a high level Shell insider source. Unfortunately the safety improvements promised in the email have not materialised.

According to Bill Campbell, the aforementioned former Group Auditor of Shell International Limited, the situation is in fact deteriorating.  Mr Campbell was sufficiently concerned to recently send an extraordinary email to every UK Member of Parliament warning of an inevitable calamity on a Shell North Sea platform unless Shell management takes action instead of making unfulfilled promises.

We have republished below the comment received from the insider who kindly supplied the leaked email.

Dear Sir

I read your site always with great interest and believe you should post this letter to all Shell staff.

As a Shell employee I believe this is a concerted effort, coordinated by the spindoctors and lawyers of Shell, to get off the hook when it comes to a courtcase. Jeroen is far too bright not to understand what is really happening. But he prefers to listen to his lawyers rather than be a tough director and remove some managers who have lied to him and/or underperformed.

Remarkable it needs to be reminded that safety is #1 after all the stories in the press and your site. We already knew that for the last 25 years or more. Or does he think the current generation of ‘leaders’ have different ideas?

Your site is genuinely open and transparent, you publish the good and the bad stuff for all to read.

Please keep your site going,

Sincerely Yours


—–Original Message—–

From: [email protected] [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: 19 July 2006 16:38

Subject: Message to all staff from Jeroen van der Veer
From:  Jeroen van der Veer, Chief Executive
To:  All Shell employees
Subject:  Safety is Job No.1

This letter has been translated into twelve other languages.

Please click here for a translation.

Dear Colleagues,

This is my first monthly letter. As I told our senior leaders during Shell Business Week, I intend to write to you over the coming year – beyond my usual messages. I will share my views on key topics with everyone across Shell. In doing so, I hope we get more alignment around our top priorities as a company. I encourage you all to discuss the points I raise so that we can deliver on Shell’s strategy “More Upstream, Profitable Downstream”, driven by a first quartile mentality.

So I hope you will openly share your views with others around you. I invite your direct feedback. I will read it, and learn from your input (please keep it simple, short and straight). You can be sure that I will try to better understand how the people of Shell see our challenges, our strength and opportunities. That is my receiving end of the conversation – your words tome.

The first key topic is safety. Why safety, you may ask. Are we not focusing on Delivery and Growth, Operational Excellence and a First Quartile Mentality? True, but frankly – without a further improved safety performance, little else matters.

There are good reasons for focusing on safety that go beyond the recent week everyone in Downstream devoted to the topic. Safety is a right and an obligation. Safety embodies our values – honesty, integrity and respect for people. And achieving better safety performance is Enterprise First in action. Without a strong safety culture, all other aspects of our culture will erode. To me, safety is one main driver and indicator of higher performance.

Let’s be perfectly clear. Our safety performance has reached a plateau – and remains below best-in-class in our industry. Our statistics show it. We know it. What does this mean? Are we not trying hard enough, focusing hard enough, or haven’t we accepted that we have a problem? I think it is a mixture. All these aspects are probably part and parcel of the safety problem. The solution rests on willpower, behaviour and taking action.

In Shell, safety awareness rightly should be “first” nature, since we have been involved in hazardous, complex and challenging activities for more than a hundred years. Many of our people are technical experts, and know how to control the hazards of operating a platform, a refinery, a chemical plant, or a fuel depot and fuel transport. And yet, despite the experience and expertise, things can go wrong. And when things go wrong people can be hurt, or, even worse, lose their lives, which is very distressing for everyone. And the world around us sees us as not safe enough.

In the past weeks, there have been media reports focusing on our safety performance in the North Sea, especially the Brent field. Part of the background is a debate around whether we, as a company, acted in sufficient depth and breadth on recommendations made in our own 1999 review of platform safety management. We genuinely believe we did. Nonetheless, there were two tragic deaths on the Brent Bravo in September 2003.

Although a one-billion-dollar improvement programme is underway in our North Sea operations, the debate in the media is likely to continue about whether we have done enough to ensure the technical integrity, safety standards and safety behaviour in that area of operations.

What can we learn from this? We see that it is hard to argue with perceptions, whether in the North Sea or elsewhere. It will take years to shift the view of those who are critical. It helps if we have consistent
improvement in performance.

We owe this to ourselves and to all who are touched by our activities. My colleagues on the Executive Committee and I believe that good safety performance is one basis of the “contract” we have with ourselves, our families and friends, and with our neighbours.

So, I ask you to ask yourself – are you aware of what more you can do, and when you can and must intervene? And are you clear on how to do this before something goes wrong in operations around you? Have you been learning from past mistakes?

Recently someone asked me if anything keeps me awake at night – and in that case, what would this be? I’m fortunate in that I am able to rest when given an opportunity, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about how we can make our Golden Rules come alive.

I’m sure you are familiar with them. But let me remind you. The Golden Rules are:

You and I:
    * Comply with the law, policies and procedures
    * Intervene on unsafe or non-compliant situations
    * Respect our neighbours

These three simple rules are powerful. It is our commitment to build a company we can be proud of. So for me, it is about how we want to be. You and I have the expertise. We only need the will to act according to our ambition. Let’s get off this plateau together and improve our performance by making safety “job number 1″.

If you would like to send me your feedback, please click

Best regards,

Jeroen van der Veer
Group Chief Executive


Jeroen van der Veer seemed in his email to be expressing sincerely held concerns over employee safety. Unfortunately the reality is that instead of an improvement in fatal accident statistics, Health & Safety Executive (HSE) stats posted on their website show that the situation continues to worsen. Indeed, continuing concern over Shell employee safety has been expressed in numerous articles in the news media including, for example, two Wall Street Journal articles published in March 2007, the first entitled: “Shell’s Safety Problem” and the second: “Shell’s Safety Problem Worse Than BP’s”

On 31 August 2007, The Guardian newspaper published an article profiling Van der Veer. It stated in reference to him: “He also makes clear he was hurt by the coverage of another fiasco – when a Shell consultant, Bill Campbell, blew the whistle on safety breaches in the North Sea.”,,2159465,00.html

Safety summit

On 14 September 2007, The Independent newspaper reported in an article headlined “Oil majors send safety chiefs to summit as criticisms mount” that “Senior directors from the world’s largest oil companies have agreed to attend a summit meeting next month in order to discuss working together to tackle health and safety issues.” The article went on to say that “Heads of safety from oil majors including BP, Shell and Total will meet together for the first time in order to agree a joint approach to improving the industry’s safety record.” According to the article the “summit meeting” results from increasing concern among oil company executives “that a series of disasters and safety failures is jeopardising their reputation and damaging business prospects.” Shell was said to be sending its head of safety, Kieron McFadyen, to the safety summit.

On 4 October 2007 Christopher Hopson of UpstreamOnline, the leading oil industry publication, reported on high level talks between the HSE and Shell in relation to complaints by UK off shore worker unions over important safety issues. Sources who attended the HSE meeting with management and staff on Cormorant Alpha revealed that the safety watchdog discovered a number of serious problems in the way the installation was being operated.  According to the UpstreamOnline article, Jake Molloy, the general secretary of OILC, said “his members on Cormorant Alpha believed the validity of their complaints had been upheld and were awaiting the final HSE report to confirm this was the case.”

Just how seriously should we take the claim by Shell management of tackling a deeply flawed safety culture when it has taken since July 2006 – the date of Jeroen van der Veers leaked email (15 months) to organise a safety summit? Is it just a PR stunt, or are worker lives going at long last to take priority over multi-billion dollar profits and fat cat bonuses?

Horrific Shell Safety Stats:

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