Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image HSE GETTING UNDER NORTH SEA’S SKIN

Aberdeen Press and Journal
12:53 – 05 November 2007

Clearly out to force through changes, Whewell says “I would certainly characterise it (North Sea safety) as not where it should be.”

Equally, he believes he will get the co-operation that is being sought, the industry having acknowledged that it had not lived up to either expectation or past pledges.

“There is growing acceptance by the industry that it took its eye off the ball at the end of the 1990s when oil prices were low.”

“I think many companies looked at the economics of staying in the North Sea and had doubts. This (in turn) drove the Opex decisions that were then being made.”

Almost defensively, Whewell pointed out that cost-reduction and therefore planned non-maintenance decisions were made on the basis that installations were then much younger and able to tolerate neglect.

It begs the question as to whether the HSE took its own eye off the ball, but Whewell insisted that inspectors at that time were doing their job.

“We looked at the way the industry was moving on maintenance; we asked for justification of maintenance plans, and many of those applications were based on shorter-term outlooks.

“So when inspectors looked at individual plans, maintenance plans being suggested by operators were probably right for taking the installations to a reasonable point five years hence.”

Whewell likens an offshore installation to a car.

“If you maintain your car well, change the oil at the appropriate intervals, it is almost impossible to know from the outside whether you have changed the oil at the right intervals.

“Therefore, if the industry wasn’t actually doing what it intended to be doing … and there may have been an element of that given pressure on costs … you get to a situation where systems appear to be functioning adequately, but sooner or later it becomes obvious that what should have been done was not done.”

Clearly giving them benefit of the doubt, Whewell asks whether senior management of the day was aware of what was or was not happening in maintenance terms aboard North Sea platforms. And did they care much beyond production targets?

“I believe that installations were delivering what they thought what was required by the company; senior management were probably acting in blissful ignorance of the real situation.”

He says managers at the end of the cost-slashing 90s didn’t want to know about problems, what they wanted was solutions, and that they didn’t necessarily realise the potential for impacting safety.

Yes, they had systems and procedures in place to assure safety, but in some cases, failed to adequately manage them.

That is a aspect of the current North Sea that HSE is placing significant priority on. The regulator is starting to delve beneath the veneer.

Whewell said: “Companies have audit systems and we look for them, but what we’re now finding as we dig much more deeply into such systems is that they can be superficial.

They can be delivering the sort of results that senior managers want rather than really being a way of determining what is out there is working properly.

“We have a big push on audits at the moment. We believe that many companies’ audit systems need improvement, as illustrated by BP Texas City.

“BP has since set in place a very comprehensive arrangement following Texas City to improve its audit. It transpired that senior management didn’t know what was going on at the refinery.”

Whewell agrees that this begs the question as to what is going on at boardroom level in some companies – a leadership doesn’t want to know attitude – bosses who don’t get out there on the proverbial shop floor, if only to hold together the team that their bonuses depend on.

“You could argue that, and certainly the culture at Texas City illustrates a lack of leadership.

“My challenge to the senior leaders in (this) industry is: can you answer the question, ‘Are you confident your installations are safe?’. And the second question, ‘How do you know that is the case?’.

“A lot of people will answer the first fairly confidently; the second is less easy to answer because then you have to get into the metrics of the information that you’re using. And the confidence that you can have in that information is very much dependent upon the culture within the company.”

So how does this fit into the much-vaunted Safety Case regime? Ergo, HSE must surely have been found wanting by an apparent inability to recognise that, while platforms were producing, there was an underlying sickness – a bit like a car where the engine seems to be working but, in reality, the car is getting clapped out.

Whewell admits to HSE shortcomings.

“I think we’ve learned lessons. I think we’d be foolish not to learn from them. We’ve now got much better systems for getting more deeply under the skin of companies’ organisations.”

That then begs the question as to when the penny dropped at the HSE that the North Sea’s engine was smoking. Around 2000, according to Whewell. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.


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