Gregor Gall: North Sea safety must be paramount

A Super Puma helicopter. Picture: Getty

A Super Puma helicopter. Picture: Getty

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After the Super Puma fatalities, it’s time workers started to drive for change, writes Gregor Gall

According to figures from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), the number of fatalities at work has fallen by nearly half over the last 20 years or so. After the recent ditching of a Super Puma helicopter close to Shetland with the loss of four oil workers’ lives, that will be cold comfort to the families and friends of the deceased.

Apart from the construction industry, the offshore oil and gas industry is – for its 25,000 staff – one of the most dangerous.

The ditching was the fifth time in four years that Super Pumas have been involved in North Sea incidents, and another model – the Super Puma EC225 – was grounded following two emergencies in 2012. Favourable weather conditions prevented fatalities in the ditchings of the EC225.

That was not the case in April 2009, when all 14 passengers and two crew on a Super Puma AS332L2 were killed after it went down in the North Sea.

In 1986, a Boeing Chinook helicopter suffered catastrophic mechanical failure two miles from Sumburgh Airport in Shetland, with the loss of 45 passengers and crew coming back from the Brent field.

In 1990, a Sikorsky S61 helicopter transferring oil workers to the Brent Spar installation crashed, leaving six dead. A Eurocopter Super Puma crashed alongside the Cormorant Alpha platform in 1992, with the loss of 11 lives.

These are just some of the examples of oil workers being killed on their way to and from their place of work while under the care of their employers. This is something that most other workers do not have to ever contemplate.

But then, of course, there are the fatalities offshore when oil workers are working. By far the most obvious example was the killing of 167 workers on 6 July, 1988 on the Piper Alpha. There have been others less well known, such as the Ocean Odyssey Semi-Sub blowout just a few months later.

While the Norwegian offshore oil and gas sector has not been without incident, injury and fatalities, the risk of death is some four times less in it compared to the British one. And, the fatalities in the Norwegian sector were more common in its start-up years. So what explains the difference?

Three things and their interaction stand out. The first is the large and majority-owned state oil company, Statoil. The second is a far more stringent legal regime in regard of not just health and safety but also employment conditions. The third is strong unions.

The dream of Tony Benn, the secretary of state for energy from 1975-1979, to have a substantial nationally-owned oil company, in the form of the British National Oil Corporation, faded and was extinguished when it was privatised in 1985 by the then Margaret Thatcher government. It was then bought over by BP in 1988.

The failure of Benn’s attempt to establish a sizeable state player in the North Sea meant that the growth of the industry in the British sector became ever more dependent upon US companies.

Their “kick ass” operating style meant that there was no room for unions or criticism of management – and this still very much pervades today (including allegations of blacklisting).

The BBC reported the partner of one offshore worker as saying after the most recent fatalities: “People are extremely nervous to fly. The fact that workers are put in this position … where they feel speaking the truth about safety issues concerning transport to and from work may result in lost jobs, is an absolute disgrace.”

The arrival of the Employment Relations Act 1999 which allowed unions to compel employers to recognise them for bargaining (where they had majority membership) did not alter this situation much. The employers took the initiative and offered a number of more amenable unions a deal that avoided the new law being used.

Some, like the RMT, believed this pre-emptive strike created nothing more than a sweetheart deal where some unions got the right to meet employers without ever being able to effect any change in their attitudes and behaviour. To this day, there are large sections of the offshore workforce who are without even this limited voice.

Add to this a weak and weakening regime of health and safety in Britain as a result of government deregulation. And while there are certain additional regulations that are specific to the offshore industry by which some 2,000 safety representatives are elected by the workforce, the problem is that the operating culture almost always trounces the robustness of the law.

So while elected safety reps are independent of management and can investigate potential hazards, dangerous occurrences, complaints and the causes of accidents as well as conduct inspections of installations, some vital parts of the jigsaw are still missing. These are being able to do so without fear or favour and effective action being taken as a result of investigations.

Where there is some worker and union membership of bodies like the Offshore Industry Advisory Committee’s workforce involvement group or the helicopter safety steering group, it is minimal and weak. The regime offshore needs to move from the giving out of information and consultation to become one of co-determination and negotiation.

The still rather divided five offshore unions need to use the occasion of the recent fatalities to generate a head of steam to move towards the Norwegian model. Resistance from government and employers is guaranteed but unless unions do, more fatalities will certainly occur.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford

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