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BP and Shell ‘not meeting safety standards on North Sea oil rigs’

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Health and Safety Executive serves ‘improvement notices’ after sharp rise in accidents

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig ablaze in the Gulf of Mexico. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

BP and other oil companies operating in the North Sea have been warned by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that they are failing to operate rigs and other offshore equipment to appropriate standards, documents show.

The “improvement notices” from the offshore regulator come amid speculation that accident statistics covering the past 12 months show a marked increase in problems over a year earlier.

While BP faces a political and environmental storm in the US after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, documents deep inside the HSE website show difficulties closer to home.

In the latest “improvement notice” to BP, which had to be acted on earlier this year, the HSE said that on the Schiehallion field the oil group “failed to ensure the safety of your employees and others not in your employment by not providing and maintaining a system of work for the control of that operation that was, so far as reasonably practicable, safe”.

Another notice that required action by March last year said BP “failed to ensure so far as it reasonably practicable the health and safety of your employees and others not in your employment by failing to maintain the fabric components on the Magnus offshore installation such as walkways, gratings, stairways and walkways”.

A more recent one, requiring action by next month, from the HSE tells BP rival Shell that on the Clipper field it had “failed to implement adequate control measures within your potable water system to prevent exposure to legionella bacteria such as that in 2009 there were 10 positive legionella samples taken over seven separate sampling dates.”

The notices are all listed on relevant section of the HSE website alongside other warnings, such as one posted on the 6 April which calls on all North Sea operators to check the pipeline emergency shut-down valves (ESDV) that were made mandatory after Lord Cullen’s investigation into the Piper Alpha platform fire in which 167 workers lost their lives. The HSE says the risk assessment follows the failure of an emergency shut-down valve and says “other ESDVs have been found to be at risk of failing in this manner”.

The notices alarm the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), an arm of the RMT union, which said it had seen provisional safety statistics for 2009 that showed a marked deterioration on 2008. The HSE declined to comment on this, saying its 2009 annual report would be published in August.

BP said the Schiehallion and Magnus field notices were for “minor issues” that were quickly rectified. “We are investing a lot in maintenance of assets and have overall a good health and safety record,” said a BP spokesman.

Shell said no one had become ill because of the legionella problem, which had now been rectified. “The improvement notice has prompted Shell to revisit the risk assessments and the effectiveness of operational control measures in the potable water management system,” said a spokeswoman.

But the OILC also argued that safety had been compromised after operators slashed pay for drill rig workers by up to a fifth last year, in response to oil prices of less than $35 a barrel last January. Many smaller operators, who dominate the North Sea, also struggled to secure bank finances for their activities.

Jake Molloy, general secretary of the OILC, which represents many of the estimated 25,000 North Sea offshore workers, said: “Drill workers feel that they’re sold short. They undergo training and do the work and the reward they get is a massive pay cut. It’s not good for safety culture on rigs.”

Unions are in talks with the Offshore Contractors Association about an offer of a 1.8% pay increase this year, though Molloy said this disguised cuts in entitlements such as travel expenses and sick pay. Molloy accepted that standards – at least before last year’s cost cuts – had begun to improve, but took issue with how some of the figures are calculated. For example, he claims the number of man hours lost to accidents is massaged by operators assigning rig workers suffering relatively minor injuries to office work, meaning they are excluded from the category. He also claimed that recommendations from Cullen following the Piper Alpha disaster which called on the workforce to be given a much larger role in safety had been ignored.


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