Safety on North Sea oil platforms is being compromised because the workforce is scared to speak out, a three-day conference to mark the 25th anniversary of Britain's worst offshore accident will be told on Tuesday.
In addition, the dismantling of a specialist offshore safety division set up by the government after the Piper Alpha accident will make things worse and should be reversed, Jake Molloy, Aberdeen-based regional organiser of the RMT union, will warn.
Oil & Gas UK, the lobby group for the major oil companies, has issued its latest annual health and safety report before the Piper 25 conference in Scotland, outlining a 48% reduction in the number of reportable oil and gas releases over the last three years, plus an all-time low in 2012 in the incidence of "over-three-day injuries".
But Molloy said these statistics were irrelevant if those employed offshore were still too frightened to report safety breaches because they believed they could lose their job. "Overall safety in the North Sea has improved since Piper Alpha but I have got two safety representatives in my office now saying they cannot do what they are meant to," he said. "You can have all the statistics and the technology in place but it does not make a blind bit of difference if people are under pressure, being bullied, or just disengaged."
Molloy said oil companies subcontracted almost all North Sea work to third-party contractors, meaning those employers are more scared of losing their multimillion-pound deals through lost work time than interested in listening to difficult issues raised by their employees. Some managers rule in a climate of fear where employees dread an "NRB" (not required back) on the grounds of a one-off complaint about their behaviour, he claimed.
He said even safety representatives feared their employers and did not have the authority to halt operations as they do in Norway, where the overall industry safety record is much better.
The decision by the government to dismantle the offshore safety division inside the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and subsume its functions inside a newly created energy division covering onshore and other installations is also troubling the RMT.
"HSE says this restructuring will make no difference but I remain to be convinced, as does the rest of the trade union movement in Scotland. We are also worried that the role of the HSE is being diluted," Molloy said.
He has the backing at the law firm Pinsent Masons, whose health and safety expert, Anna Austin, has expressed concern about the change. "The challenge that faces the proposed energy division is to maintain the same level of expertise in its regulation of offshore safety … it remains to be seen whether this can be done," she said.
Kevin Myers, the deputy chief executive of the HSE, wrote an open letter on the organisation's website, in which he insisted he was committed to strengthening offshore safety and promised the appointment of more offshore safety inspectors.
Regulation would remain "business as usual from an external point of view … We're all agreed on the need for a robust regulatory regime offshore – we owe it to those who have lost their lives in the industry and to those who still work there," he wrote.
The offshore safety division was established in line with the recommendations of Lord Cullen, as part of his report into the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, in which 167 workers were killed after a gas leak and explosion on the Occidental Petroleum-owned platform.
No criminal charges were brought against Occidental.
The Piper 25 conference, organised by Oil & Gas UK, will hear from Lord Cullen, the HSE and major oil companies, as well as Molloy.
An Oil & Gas UK spokesman said: "The UK oil and gas industry places a major focus on engaging the workforce in safety issues because evidence shows that the involvement of workers is important in ensuring continuous improvement in this area.
"Not only is training provided by the industry for safety representatives, along with the industry, trade unions and Health and Safety Executive, workforce safety representatives provide leadership to Step Change in Safety, the organisation with the goal of making the UK the safest place to work in offshore oil and gas.
"The HSE also provides a telephone number on which offshore workers can anonymously report any concerns they have about safety, to ensure that everyone is heard by the relevant authorities."
Two leaks a day
Oil companies are leaking crude or other chemicals into the North Sea at the rate of two incidents a day, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
The latest petroleum operations notice, covering the period between 5 and 29 April, shows more than 50 separate cases in which BP, Shell and others have been forced to report spillages.
BP reported releasing an unspecificed "product" from the Marnock field on 27 April with a further "mineral" release from the Andrew field just 24 hours earlier.
Most of the cases involve small amounts of fluid and are often blamed on human or equipment failure, according to the reports, but the sheer volume of accidents raises questions about wider offshore safety.
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