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Aberdeen Press & Journal:PLATFORM BLAZE FUELS FRESH FEARS FOR NORTH SEA SAFETY

08:50 – 26 November 2007

Fresh concerns were raised last night about safety on North Sea installations after the evacuation of over 100 workers when fire broke out on a platform.

The blaze on the Thistle Alpha, which lies 120 miles north-east of Shetland, came just days after the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published a 71-page brief criticising North Sea operators for poor safety levels.

In all, 116 personnel from the 159 crew on the platform had to be evacuated when fire broke out about 8am yesterday.

Seven helicopters, including two from Norway, and a Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft from RAF Kinloss were scrambled to help in the evacuation of non-essential workers from the platform, which is operated by Petrofac on behalf of Swedish-based Lundin Petroleum.

Last night, Graham Tran, regional officer with the Amicus section of the Unite union, called the fire a “very serious incident”.

The captain of Coastguard helicopter Mike Uniform, Steve Christmas, said he and his crew had been among the first at the scene.

He said he could see smoke coming from the east side of the platform. “It certainly wasn’t pleasant out there, with heavy snow showers and a strong north-westerly wind,” he said.

“We saw smoke coming from the platform, as well as a lot of hoses pointing at the smoke.”

Winch operator Mark Hughes added that all 116 workers evacuated were calm and composed. “There certainly was no panic,” he said. “There was no need to winch anyone as we were able to land on the helipad of the platform.”

The workers were taken to the Murchison and Dunlin platforms.

The blaze was brought under control about 10.45am.

In a statement last night, Petrofac said 53 of the workers had returned to the Thistle Alpha. The remaining 63 were due to stay on the Murchison overnight.

No one was injured.

The statement thanked all those who had helped in the operation, especially the Coastguard, Bristow helicopters, search-and-rescue aircraft and neighbouring platforms.

A Petrofac spokeswoman said: “The situation has now been resolved. A full investigation is being conducted into the incident. Production has been shut down.”

Mr Tran said: “Normal procedure for emergencies which occur on rigs is to remove non-essential personnel only. However, the fact that a full evacuation was ordered so quickly demonstrates the degree of severity involved in this case.

“This also demonstrates the harsh environment our workers have to deal with and people need to know what is going on in the offshore oil and gas industry in terms of safety.

“I’m not suggesting that the Thistle Alpha has a poor safety record but this incident strengthens the union’s claims that the UK Government should give the HSE the power to name and shame North Sea operators who do have poor safety records and take away their operating licenses.”

Mr Tran added: “Obviously, the focus yesterday was ensuring the safety of those on board the rig, but now a proper investigation has to be carried out to find out what caused the fire and indeed whether safety procedures during the rescue were followed correctly.”

Jake Molloy, general secretary of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, added: “The Thistle Alpha has a reasonable record of safety. It has had some problems in the past with corrosion and erosion but in regard to major incidents there has never been anything too big.

“I don’t want to pre-empt what has happened on this occasion but this certainly acts as a reminder and emphasises that oil and gas operators must remain vigilant in all aspects of safety.”

Aberdeen North Labour MP Frank Doran said: “Of course, we need to establish the reasons for the fire, but this demonstrates that we have a right to be concerned about safety records in the offshore oil and gas sector.

“Hopefully, there will be a full and thorough investigation and that investigation will be carried out in the light of the findings from the recent HSE report.”

Last week’s Health and Safety Executive report focused on the safety and integrity of nearly 100 North Sea platforms. The three-year investigation found that significant improvements had been made but more needed to be done.

The findings showed the state of plant was considered to be poor in more than 50% of the installations inspected. Companies supported this and claimed the plant, fabric and systems were not safety-critical, so a lower level of integrity was justified.

The report concluded that this illustrated a “lack of understanding” in many parts of the industry.

The head of the HSE’s offshore division, Ian Whewell – who in December described the safety record of North Sea oil and gas companies as “unacceptable” – declined to comment last night until an inquiry had been held.

According to the HSE, the Thistle Alpha was inspected this month and in May, with a further inspection scheduled for next month.

A spokeswoman said: “The arrangement the Thistle Alpha has with the HSE is that a back-up generator should be available for instances like this for emergency lighting and fire water.

“There is nothing to suggest that this generator wasn’t fully functioning.”

Petrofac confirmed the fire had started in the platform’s turbine module.

A spokesman said: “Emergency procedures were implemented and all personnel called to muster stations. All relevant authorities have been notified.”

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