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Shell’s Touch Fuck All culture on North Sea Platforms

By John Donovan


In June 2006, The Guardian published an article by Terry Macalister  under the headline “Shell accused over oil rig safety“.

It reported on criticisms leveled at the oil giant by its former HSE Group Auditor Bill Campbell (right) “who worked directly for Shell for 24 years, says he brought his concerns to the attention of directors as far back as 1999 – and again in 2004 – but still feels safety is compromised.”

Mr Campbell was asked by Shell to lead an expert team carrying out a review of Shell’s North Sea platforms in 1999. His subsequent report included allegations of falsification of maintenance records for safety critical equipment, non-compliance with routine maintenance and bodged repairs.

According to The Guardian article:

Shell offshore workers used an acronym TFA – Touch Fuck All – to describe among themselves the need not to meddle with equipment but keep things working. The report by Mr Campbell’s team concluded: “Directives such as TFA encourages a behaviour of non-compliance – the Brent TFA acronym is a potential reputation liability.

In this regard, it is notable how in the flood of articles about the Gannet Alpha oil spill and Shell North Sea Platforms, some mention antiquated infrastructure and “metal fatigue.” The leaking pipeline is said to be some 30 years old.

Bill Campbell was so concerned at what his audit team discovered and the subsequent lack of an adequet response from Shell senior management, that on 24 July 2007 he sent a chilling warning email to every UK MP:

Subject: “This could be the most important whistleblower email you have ever received.”

Some unfortunate Royal Dutch Shell workers have already lost their lives. More lives are at stake.

My name is Bill Campbell. I am a former Group Auditor of Shell International. I am writing to you on a matter of conscience in an effort to avert the inevitability of another major accident in the North Sea. The consequences could potentially impact on families in many constituencies, including your own.

As Royal Dutch Shell and the Health & Safety Executive would acknowledge, I am an expert on safety matters relating to offshore oil and gas platforms. In 1999, I was appointed by Shell to lead a safety audit on the Brent Bravo platform. The audit revealed a platform management culture that basically gave a higher priority to production than the safety of Shell employees. To our astonishment we discovered that a “Touch F*** All” policy was in place. Worse still, safety records were routinely falsified and repairs bodged.

I personally brought the shocking situation to the attention of senior management including Malcolm Brinded, the then Managing Director of Shell Exploration & Production. I revealed that ESDV leak-off tests were purposely falsified, not once but many times and that Brent Bravo platform management had admitted responsibility for the dangerous practices being followed. In response to my team ringing alarm bells, management pledged to rectify the serious problems which had been uncovered.

When I later complained that the pledges were not being kept, I was removed from my oversight function.

Four years later, a massive gas leak occurred on the platform. Two workers lost their lives. I have no doubt at all that the inaction of the relevant Asset Manager, the General Manager, the Oil Director and Malcolm Brinded, contributed in some part to the unlawful killing of two persons on Brent Bravo in September 2003.

Shell subsequently pleaded guilty to breaches of the HSE regulations and a record-breaking £900,000 fine was imposed. I thought this would bring about a real change in policy to put the emphasis on safety.

Unfortunately I was wrong. Although I supplied the evidence related to 1999, and the fact that there had been a collapse in controls of integrity from 1999 to 2003 on all 16 of Shell’s North Sea offshore installations covered in a post fatality integrity review to the HSE for review by the Procurator Fiscal, none of this evidence was presented before the Sheriff at the subsequent Inquiry. The situation is explained in a letter to the Procurator Fiscal and the Sheriff (on 24th February 2007).

Shell management has engaged in spin to try to pretend that it is getting to grips with its safety problem. However, its atrocious safety record – the worst in the North Sea in terms of accidental deaths and absolute number of enforcement actions – tells a different story. This fact has resulted in a number of newspaper articles.

I have had meetings with senior Shell people including its CEO Mr. Jeroen van der Veer. I regret to say that I have found him to be economical with the truth. He prefers to support cover-up and deceit rather than confronting the underlying problems. Brinded is now Executive Director of Shell Exploration & Production. He believes in burying evidence.

My family and friends would probably prefer me to give up on this matter and enjoy my retirement after so many years working for Shell.

However, by writing to every MP in the UK, no one can ever say that I did not do my best to avert an inevitable further major accident event in the North Sea. When it happens (I pray that I am wrong) I will make this warning communication available to the media together with the vast amount of evidence in my possession.

At least my conscience is clear. I have done everything possible to ring the alarm bells about Shell management and its unscrupulous attitude to the safety of its employees.

Yours sincerely

Bill Campbell


Mr Campbell has been proven right to a large degree by subsequent events, including enforcement notices served on Shell by the UK Health & Safety Executive and Shell currently being forced to make one admission after another as a result of the uncontrolled oil spill. This is after Shell CEO Peter Voser took a hypocritical cheap shot at BP over the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Shell was so concerned by the fact that Mr Campbell approached me on the matter that its lawyers wrote to Mr Campbell’s solicitors warning about contact with me. Shell also set up a crisis reaction team to combat our campaigning activities, closed down this website and instigated a global cyber spying operation in an attempt to prevent information reaching me from Shell whistleblowers.

What a shame that it did not instead concentrate on rectifying the horrendous problems uncovered by Bill Campbell and his team in relation to the management, maintenance and safety of Shell North Sea Platforms?

Mr Campbell also accused Shell of a massive cover-up.

In this connection, it is interesting to note some of the current headlines:

Don’t hide facts about oil leak: The Herald

Shell Under Fire Over Silent Tactics: Spiegel Online

Shell Withholds Information On North Sea Oil Spill: UK Progressive Magazine

Leader: Onus is on Shell to come clean on North Sea oil spill: The Scotsman

Don’t hide facts about oil leak: Herald Scotland

Shell accused of secrecy over North Sea platform oil leak
: Aberdeen Press and Journal

Shell, govt spin machine keeps lid on worst UK oil spill for decade: RT

Shell accused of playing down spill as estimate rises: Aberdeen Press and Journal

Shell needs to come fully clean: The Independent

Shell ’should have been more open about oil spill’
: Herald Scotland

Shell less than transparent about worst UK oil spill in a decade: Greenpeace

So many questions, so few answers from Shell
: The Scotsman

Shell mum on flow from oil pipeline leak: Reuters

Leader: Oil is not well where information is concerned: The Scotsman

Criticism Is Growing Over Shell’s Response to Oil Leak
: New York Times

Shell’s reputation is tarnished by North Sea oil spill:

These events will at least hopefully also ring alarm bells loud and clear with US authorities who have foolishly decided to place their trust in Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean of Alaska.

If Shell cannot deal openly and competently with a relatively small spill in the North Sea, how can it be trusted to deal with the potential of a major spill in much more difficult conditions?

Ironically, I have just received the following invitation from Shell:

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