Safety on the North Sea: back to business as usual

North Sea oil worker and activist NEIL ROTHNIE comments on the Super Puma helicopter crash on 23 August that claimed the lives of four workers. The incident has provoked a storm of anger among North Sea workers and communities, expressed on the Destroy the Super Pumas facebook page.

Here we are, after another four deaths in a helicopter disaster in the North Sea oilfields – the latest of five choppers to come down, with a total of twenty lives lost, in the last four years.

And now it would seem from press reports that the focus by the powers that be in the industry is on rebuilding the shattered confidence of the offshore workers (and their families) who regularly fly to work in the Super Puma.  And I thought they would be concentrating on replacing the fleet of aircraft that take us there.

But just maybe, behind the scenes, the real focus of the authorities is to come up with some explanation for the latest disaster and the death of four workers, and a plan to halt the carnage in the UK sector and who knows how many other disasters and near disasters in the oilfields world wide.

My guess would be that there will have been hundreds, maybe thousands, of minor incidents at the base of the pyramid supporting these five recent catastrophic and near catastrophic events in the UK.

And right on cue, the employers safety organisation, Step Change in Safety, send a man onto BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme to tell the presenter James Naughtie that: “Safety is the first priority”. And James Naughtie, like so many others in the media, swallows the employers’ disinformation whole as though it was incontestable. Indigestible more likely!

No doubt if you’d asked the PR man for the company who built the world’s highest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, he’d have told you the same thing – safety was their first priority.  Just possibly he’d have gone on to explain that the real purpose of the building was to make a suitable spot to place a red light to ensure that aircraft would be alerted and not crash into it.  Sorted!

It is of course nonsense.  Money (i.e. oil and gas) is the oil companies’ and the Government’s first priority when it comes to the North Sea.  If safety is now a major issue it’s because the workforce made it so, after the Piper Alpha [oil rig explosion in July 1988 that killed 167 workers].  Some employers will concede that safety can also be good business.  It must be galling to lose your installation, your helicopter or the skilled worker that you’ve invested so much time and money on..

The oil industry’s first priority was always going to be how to get these choppers back in operation as soon as possible, causing minimum disruption to their operations (read profits). You’d expect this.  You’d expect a bear to shit in the woods.  It’s not shameful – certainly not for the bears.  What’s shameful is the disinformation and posturing and hand wringing.

And when it comes to rebuilding confidence in the workforce – just why would the workforce be amenable to industry assurances about safety?  It’s over a year and a half since Total allowed the G4 well on their Elgin field to blow out.  That “event” was by all reports a very near miss – a spark away from disaster – according to the RMT union.

Over 8,000 cubic meters an hour of explosive gas escaped during and after the four hours it took to evacuate the installations by helicopter, and during this time and for a further five days that spark was actually very very close in the form of a naked flame left burning in the flare stack.  Only the wind direction (luck) stopped Elgin going up – and with what consequences for oil workers’ lives if it had?

A year and a half after the Elgin near catastrophe, and 6 months after gas production from Elgin resumed, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have not reported yet.  So workers in the industry still don’t know why the well was allowed to blow out and why 238 lives were put in jeopardy.  Total’s talk of a “gas leak” was classic oilfield disinformation.  But Total’s claims that no human errors were involved, and that it was all down to a mysterious substance Bromine Carbonate in combination with pipe thread lubricant, would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.

There’s no disgrace in being frightened of packing yourself into the sardine can that is the Super Puma, while running through in your head just what you would do as the chopper flipped over and filled with water – assuming you survive the impact.  And your family at home will be as helpless as ever.  That’s maybe worse than actually going in a chopper you’ve lost confidence in.

Forty plus years of failure by the trade union movement to effectively organise the UK sector may again come to the rescue of the employers as they attempt to get back to business as usual.  But one day those workers, without whom the industry just could not function, might still come to the conclusion that enough is enough.  On that day overdrive in the disinformation industry might not be quite enough either.

• See Destroy the Super Pumas on facebook.

• Some reports on reactions to the accident in the Glasgow Herald, Aviation Week and the Wall Street Journal.

• Earlier articles on the Elgin gas blowout and the history of oil workers’ organisation.

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One Response to Safety on the North Sea: back to business as usual

  1. […] If you chopper out to an oil rig for publicity purposes it might be appropriate to tell the people who do that every day why there shouldn’t be an inquiry – a public one – into 20 lives lost in four years from helicopter crashes. Or even give a government response to Total allowing the G4 well on their Elgin field to blow out.  That “event” was by all reports a very near miss – a spark away from disaster – according to the RMT union. https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/safety-on-the-north-sea-back-to-business-as-usual/ […]

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