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Oil rigs plagued by safety lapses

April 12, 2009

Health and Safety Executive investigates more than 1,000 ‘dangerous occurrences’ in two years

Oil companies are committing more than 300 safety breaches on North Sea oil and gas rigs every year, raising fresh concerns about dangers faced by offshore workers following the Super Puma helicopter tragedy earlier this month in which 16 people died.

Figures obtained by The Sunday Times reveal that inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigated more than 1,000 incidents between 2006 and 2008. They included evacuating rig workers without supplying them with the immersion suits essential to survival in the North Sea, and failing to maintain gangways and railings, leading to serious injury.

Companies such as Shell and BP have been repeatedly investigated for failings such as corroded pipes and steelwork, faulty valves and loose handrails. HSE officials visited 841 offshore installations after 1,042 “dangerous occurrences”. Shell was investigated 207 times and BP 85.

More than 120 prohibition and improvement notices, forcing companies to make improvements or face prosecution, were issued by the HSE over the same period.

Figures from the HSE show that Shell UK was challenged last year over lack of maintenance checks for pipes carrying hazardous hydrocarbons from the Brent Alpha platform. In 2003, a gas leak on the installation killed two men for which the oil giant was fined £900,000. It was served an improvement notice in 2007 for failing to inform the HSE of safety breaches. The same year, BP was criticised for failing to maintain walkways, gratings, stairways and handrails on its Magnus offshore installation.

In August 2008, Petrofac, a company which designs, builds and maintains oil and gas facilities, was served an improvement notice after an offshore worker fell through grating on a walkway up to his waist, bruising his lower body. The company had been served an improvement notice four months earlier after a handrail came loose and an employee fell five feet.

A spokeswoman for Petrofac, said: “For the past six years, our safety performance has continuously improved. We take any feedback . . . very seriously.”

According to the HSE, the extractive and utility supply industry, which covers offshore operations, has one of the highest reported injury rates.Last year, almost 800 in every 100,000 employees suffered an injury which forced them off work for at least three days and about 16% of workers were injured by moving objects.

“The industry is killing two people a year on average and seriously injuring more than 40,” said Jake Molloy, general secretary of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee.

“It’s been at that level for around 20 years and for a small specialised industry that’s high. The HSE has upped their game and there’s been a real push amid an acknowledgement that the industry had allowed installations to fall into a state of disrepair. Oil and gas companies have been reluctant to spend money.”

However, industry bodies insist the safety record has improved with the lowest number of significant injuries since 1996, despite a 22% increase in the offshore workforce. “The safety performance of the oil and gas sector compares well with other industries,” said Robert Paterson, health and safety director of Oil & Gas UK.

A BP spokesman said: “The safety of our people is our highest priority. We . . . continuously monitor, review, update and improve whenever and wherever possible.”

Shell declined to comment.

An interim report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch into the Supa Puma crash found a “catastrophic” gearbox failure caused the rotor blades to separate from the aircraft, severing the fuselage. Officials, based in Hampshire, are examining the wreckage and its combined black box and cockpit voice recorder. Union officials have called for the specific type of Super Puma involved in the crash, the AS332L2, to be grounded amid safety concerns.

The model has been involved in three fatal crashes in recent years in addition to more minor incidents. Last night, Bob Crow, leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union, went further, suggesting all Super Pumas should be grounded.


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