SAFETY procedures on board a remote North Sea oil platform were under investigation last night after more than 100 workers had to be evacuated to escape a "very serious" fire.
The fire on Thistle Alpha, nicknamed the "Black Pig" by offshore workers, started in the turbine section. A routine airlift of non-essential workers was quickly upgraded to an evacuation as the fire began to spread.
Six rescue helicopters, the Coastguard and a Nimrod aircraft were scrambled to the rig, 100 miles off the coast of Shetland, as it was lashed by heavy seas and snowstorms.
Last night it emerged the oil platform, which has been operating since the 1970s, has been the subject of numerous enforcement notices served by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), one of which highlighted safety problems with the rig's turbine.
The fire comes less than a week after an HSE inspection of the offshore industry's oil and gas installations found the overall state of more than half the platforms to be poor.
The fire was discovered shortly after 8am, with smoke and flames seen above the platform.
RAF Kinloss scrambled four helicopters and a Nimrod aircraft, joined by two helicopters from Norway's Joint Rescue Coordination Centre and the Coastguard.
Staff began emergency procedures, with 116 - out of a total of 159 - airlifted and taken to the Murchison and Dunlin platforms about six miles away.
Michael Mulford, a spokesman for the RAF, said the decision to evacuate so many staff "reflected the seriousness of the fire", with weather conditions in the area "not great".
"Normally, they will take off non-essential staff first, but they have gone for a fairly major airlift from the first moment."
Mr Mulford said he believed the Norwegian helicopters, which were the first to arrive, had been able to land on the platform to pick up crew members.
The location of the Thistle Alpha, he added, brought its own difficulties. "This is just about as remote as it gets," he said. "It's just five miles inside the UK search-and-rescue region."
The fire was extinguished at 10:45am, and the all-clear was given at about 11am.
By yesterday afternoon, 53 workers had returned to the platform, with 63 due to remain on the Murchison overnight.
Steve Christmas, captain of the Shetland Coastguard helicopter, Mike Uniform, said he saw smoke coming from the east side of the installation.
"It certainly wasn't pleasant out there, with heavy snow showers and a strong north-westerly wind," he said. "We saw smoke coming from the left of a platform as well as a lot of hoses pointing at the smoke."
Mark Hughes, the winch operator, added: "There certainly was no panic. Everyone was calm.
"There was no need to winch anyone as we were able to land on the helipad of the platform. We then took the crewmen to a nearby platform."
A spokeswoman for the HSE said: "The platform was inspected in May 2007 and again in November. Another meeting is scheduled in December.
"As is agreed with the HSE, one generator is always available to provide emergency lighting and fire water. At this time the fire is out, there are no injuries and the platform is being remanned."
A spokesman for Petrofac, the firm which runs the platform, once owned by BP, said the fire was discovered at 8:07am.
He said: "Emergency procedures were implemented and all personnel called to muster stations. The fire was confirmed extinguished at 10:45am and all 159 personnel are safe and well.
"As a precautionary measure, non-essential personnel were 'down-manned' to the nearby Murchison and Dunlin platforms."
Maria Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Lundin Petroleum, a Swedish company which owns the rig, said production at the platform had stopped.
The HSE said the platform had undergone recent inspections and no serious problems were apparently found. Jake Molloy, the general secretary of the OILC union, backed the Thistle Alpha's "reasonable" safety record, saying there had been no major incidents there in recent years.
He added: "The fact workers were taken off by helicopter to local platforms suggests it was a precautionary measure."
Graham Tran, of Amicus, said: "They took the decision to evacuate - that gives an indication of concern."
Both Lundin and Petrofac, which has launched an internal investigation, have been served with several improvement notices and prohibition notices from the HSE.
Over 2004 and 2005, Lundin was issued with three improvement notices and two prohibition notices over safety concerns on the Thistle, all of which were later addressed.
The notices highlighted various issues, one of which involved the condition of the turbine. A prohibition notice, issued in April 2004, found that "the turbine is not safe to operate".
An HSE report last year found that between 1991 and 2004, there were 278 "dangerous occurrences" involving turbine modules on offshore installations.
Other problems flagged up by the HSE concerning the Thistle rig included the "integrity" of the wells not being maintained, as well as a failure to assess the risk to workers of exposure to fumes.
In March this year, Petrofac, which regards itself as one of the leading companies in its field, was served with an improvement notice by the HSE regarding its operations on the nearby Heather platform.
HSE inspectors noted the company's "failure to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of your employees".
The improvement notice is still outstanding.
Last December, another improvement notice, since complied with, was issued to Petrofac.
One former worker on the platform decided to highlight the platform's condition in print. In a scathing poem published in a recent edition of Blowout, the magazine of the OILC, the anonymous employee wrote:
"For over thirty years the platform has toiled/ To keep the company shareholders spoiled/ But now in the year two thousand and five/ The platform's condition has taken a desperate dive."
HSE report flags catalogue of maintenance failings offshore
THE "very serious" fire on Thistle Alpha comes less than a week after the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued a damning report on the safety standards of the offshore industry.
The three-year investigation exposed a catalogue of serious safety failings and a backlog of critical maintenance work on offshore production installations. Nearly two-thirds of the 100 platforms and mobile rigs inspected were either in a poor state of repair or guilty of non-compliance with safety regulations.
HSE inspectors discovered backlog levels on rigs equivalent to 26,000 hours of work. One installation had a backlog of 15,000 hours of work deemed "safety-critical".
Half of the "deluge systems" on offshore platforms - vital in fighting fires - had red or amber "traffic lights" assigned by the HSE. In many cases, this was due to corrosion of carbon-steel pipework. At least one platform was shut down on HSE orders because of a massive safety- critical maintenance backlog.
The HSE report was based on an inspection of 100 of the estimated 250 installations and mobile platforms working in the North Sea. It revealed that on more than 50 per cent of the platforms inspected, the state of the plant was "poor". Some 16 per cent of the platforms surveyed were found to have non-compliance or major failings, while a further 42 per cent had isolated failures or incomplete systems.
Judith Hackitt, who chairs the Health and Safety Commission, the body responsible for health and safety regulation in the UK, said the report should act as a wake-up call to the industry.
However, the HSE was criticised for failing to identify which firms had breached crucial regulations or give detailed examples of the breaches.