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North Sea is “on a knife edge”

08:50 – 29 November 2007

The Health and Safety Executive could press for a prosecution if the probe into the Thistle Alpha fire reveals defects – despite the fact no one was killed or injured in the blaze on Sunday.

The undertaking from HSE chief Geoffrey Podger was given yesterday shortly before Prime Minister Gordon Brown stressed the UK Government’s commitment to safety in the North Sea and flatly rejected First Minister Alex Salmond’s call for responsibility to be devolved to the Scottish Government.

Mr Podger delivered the promise after revealing safety in the North Sea is “on a knife edge” after years of under-investment on platforms at sea decades longer than they were originally intended.

Mr Podger was being cross-examined at a Work and Pensions Committee hearing on the situation offshore following the fire on Sunday, a second smaller incident on Shell’s North Cormorant platform on Tuesday, and a damning report last week warning of widespread safety problems, especially with vital “deluge” fire extinguishing systems.

He gave the assurance: “Yes. We do prosecute in cases where nobody has been killed or injured because it is simply luck that there were not – and I personally think such prosecutions are more than justified.”

He added that he could not say if there would be a prosecution in the Thistle Alpha case or not pending a proper investigation. It would be up to the procurator fiscal.

Aberdeen South MP Anne Begg raised the prospect after citing the warning in the HSE report on the state of North Sea installations that 50% of deluge systems were deficient in some way.

She said: “If they are not up to scratch then you potentially have another Piper Alpha on your hands.”

Earlier Mr Podger warned that, despite an improvement since Piper Alpha nearly 20 years ago when a lot of effort went into safety, he said: “At the present time the truth is that the whole sector is very challenged indeed on safety grounds and this is partly as a result of financial pressure not least because the actual pressure to generate large quantities of oil when the price is high makes it more difficult to do so safety.”

He said inspectors would discuss with platform owners what needed to be done “in quite forceful terms”.

And he said: “If companies wish to run these rigs beyond what was anticipated would be their natural life under very significant production pressures then they have got to be prepared to do what is required to maintain safety.”

Health and Safety Commission chairwoman Judith Hackitt said: “I don’t think there can be any question that because people do not have the resources we can compromise on levels of safety. That would be indefensible.”

She said the Commission was “confident” that the industry was taking the issue seriously, but her message to bosses would be: “You are making progress, but not enough and there is a need to do more.”

Ms Hackitt rejected a call from Ms Begg to “name and shame” the worst operators because the report was drawn up over a three-year period. Defects noticed three years ago had been rectified and it would be wrong to single them out, she said.

Mr Podger declined to comment on the political aspects of Mr Salmond’s call for responsibility for safety on the North Sea to be devolved but said he would be concerned to maintain resources “throughout Britain” and warned of the danger of expertise in the hands of one or two individuals being lost.

Mr Brown made his view clear during prime minister’s question time: “I believe that the proper place in which to consider such matters is this United Kingdom parliament.”

He said: “Whenever incidents have raised questions we have acted immediately – and that is true of all governments.” and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.


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