Critical shortage of safety inspectors puts lives of North Sea oilmen at risk

Sep 10, 2001 02:00 AM

Critical shortage of offshore safety inspectors is placing the lives of thousands of North Sea oilmen at risk. Key improvements in the offshore safety regime which followed the Piper Alpha disaster are being compromised by the inability of front-line inspectors from the government's Health and Safety Executive to police platforms in the UK sector of the North Sea.
A union leader claimed that the safety case regime -- the linchpin of Lord Cullen's post-Piper reforms -- is also being affected by the shortfall in inspectors in the HSE's offshore division (OSD), which is currently operating one third under strength. On the giant BG Rough gas platform, a backlog of almost 18,000 hours of maintenance work, including 11,600 hours defined as safety-critical, was discovered during an inspection in July.
A dossier of internal HSE documents has shown that the staffing problems within the offshore division have reached crisis point in key safety areas. Work on safety cases -- the benchmark documents for individual installations -- has already been hit by staff shortages and is being exacerbated by holiday cover and illness among OSD staff.

Senior staff at the OSD have already examined the possibility of only carrying out selective assessments in safety cases of individual platforms to ease the "extreme pressure" of the safety case workload. Many offshore inspections are now being limited to "reactive" work associated with accidents and incidents at the expense of proactive visits which have, in the past, uncovered serious safety flaws and prevented potential disasters.
Jake Molloy, the general secretary of the oil workers' union, OILC, said: "The inspectors don't have the muscle, the manpower or the resources to do their job and the whole thing is caving in around their heads. And that has obvious implications for offshore safety. "If the guys meant to police the industry aren't able to do their jobs then the safety of thousands of workers is bound to be compromised."
The Aberdeen office of the OSD, now part of the HSE's Hazardous Industries Directorate, should have 26 inspectors dedicated to offshore inspection and investigation. However, there are currently only 18 inspectors and only eight of the 12 specialist posts are filled.

A letter to an oil company, sent by David Forsyth, a principal inspector, has underlined the scale of the problem. He states: "Until we rectify the current staffing shortfalls, most offshore visits will be limited to reactive work associated with accidents and incidents and to enable OSD to carry out safety case assessment obligations."
A minute of a meeting of senior OSD personnel last month, chaired by Paul Davies, director of the Hazardous Industries Division, also highlights concerns about staff. It states: "Fluctuations in safety case assessment workload [is] leading to significant peaks in demand. Allied to which are the implications of recent legal advice that resources are not a legitimate factor in determining the scope of safety case assessment if HSE is to make defendable decisions on case acceptability."
A senior inspector with the OSD backed the OILC claims. He said: "There is a feeling that the people who really know the industry just aren't there on the ground in sufficient numbers."

The claims that safety was being compromised were, however, vigorously rejected by Taf Powell, the head of the OSD. He declared: "I would utterly refute Jake Molloy's assertions that we are being entirely reactive and not proactive."
Mr Powell admitted, however, that the shortfalls had forced the OSD to prioritise its commitments and some offshore inspections had been curtailed. " We are putting most of our work into planned inspections and the more strategic stuff is having to take a back seat," said Mr Powell. "I wish I had more inspectors. We have more gaps than I feel very comfortable with but we are maintaining a very credible programme."

Source: The Scotsman Online
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