BRITAIN'S oil and gas industry was today ordered to "up its game" on safety following revelations that the number of potentially catastrophic gas releases on offshore installations has risen by more than a third in the past year.
The number of "major and significant" releases of hydrocarbons - gas and oil - from North Sea platforms operating in British waters has increased from 61 to 85 in the past 12 months, taking the total to its highest level since 2003.
And the rate for fatal and major injuries in the industry has also almost doubled in the space of a year, according to a new report published by the government's health and safety watchdog.
Steven Walker, the head of the Health and Safety Executive's offshore division, said the figures should act as a renewed wake up call to the oil majors to set their house in order.
"This year's overall health and safety picture is simply not good enough," he said. "The industry has shown it can do better and it must do in future.
"I am particularly disappointed, and concerned, that major and significant hydrocarbon releases are up by more than a third on last year.
"This is a key indicator of how well the offshore industry is managing its major accident potential, and it really must up its game to identify and rectify the root causes of such events."
Eleven months ago Mr Walker warned a major energy conference that it would only take an inadequate pipe repair to lead to a catastrophe on the scale of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster in which 167 oil men lost their lives.
Today, he said: "We will continue to take a tough line on companies who put their workers at risk. The challenge to improve safety will be ever greater as more offshore installations exceed their original design life.
"Our new inspection initiative will check safety management plans to ensure ageing is being taken into account, but the responsibility for getting safety right in the first place rests where it always has - with the duty holders."
The report reveals that no workers were killed during offshore activities regulated by HSE for the third year running. However, two pilots and 14 oil workers were killed last year when a Bond-operated Super Puma helicopter crashed in the North Sea and another worker died in an accident on board a diving support vessel - offshore activities which are not regulated by the watchdog.
The combined fatal and major injury rate in the industry almost doubled to 192 per 100,000 workers, compared with 106 the previous year. A total of 443 dangerous occurrences were reported, 34 fewer than the previous year.
The main types reported were hydrocarbon releases (42 per cent), failure of equipment offshore (23 per cent) well- related incidents (6 per cent) and failures relating to lifting operations (9 per cent).Jake Molloy, the regional organiser of the OILC/RMT union, claimed that each of the 85 major hydrocarbon releases reported by the HSE represented a potential Piper Alpha scale disaster.
And he said the deteriorating statistics showed that Britain's oil and gas industry had taken the "eye off the ball" on safety. Mr Molloy said: "This report makes pretty grim reading. When you see the trends creeping back up this way you have got to be concerned. And the significant rise in gas leaks is the most worrying aspect of this report."
He claimed the rise in releases reflected an apparent decrease in the money being spent on essential maintenance programmes on the ageing platforms in the UK Continental Shelf.
Robert Paterson, the health and safety director for Oil & Gas UK, the pan industry trade body, admitted that the increase in hydrocarbon releases was a cause for concern for the industry.
But he refuted the union claims that essential maintenance programmes had been cut because the oil price had dropped. And he said: " I can assure you our commitment (to safety] remains unabated and we will ruthlessly pursue a reduction in hydrocarbon releases in particular."