Nautilus warns on offshore safety trends

21 August 2018

Nautilus has warned a conference to mark the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster that safety in the offshore industry is once again being compromised by cutbacks. 

Held in Aberdeen, the conference was organised by the unions that form the Offshore Coordinating Group – Nautilus, the RMT, Unite, the GMB and BALPA - to reflect on the lessons of the 1988 disaster, in which 167 people died after the explosion and fire on the Piper Alpha oil production platform in the North Sea. 

Opening the event, Unite regional organiser Tommy Campbell stated: 'As we reflect on the tragic events of 1988 and Piper Alpha, we feel the tone of our conference and the content should serve as a timely reminder to industry that the most important element of their operations is, and will always remain, the offshore workers we represent.' 

Nautilus national organiser Steve Doran told delegates that Piper Alpha had occurred at a time when disasters were all-too frequent.

'In the maritime sector, the 1980s seemed to be marked by accidents that were the direct consequence of a rampant free market cost-cutting philosophy that put profits before safety and short-term rewards ahead of long-term needs,' he said. 

Mr Doran said it was often forgotten that the first responders in the Piper Alpha disaster had been the crews of offshore standby and supply vessels. 'More than 20 were involved in the search and rescue efforts,' he pointed out. 'Seafarers on vessels such as the Silver Pit, Sandhaven, Forth Explorer, Maersk Logger, Leader and Master, Lowland Pioneer, and the OIL Challenger, Chancellor and Chieftan all spent hours pulling survivor after survivor from the sea as the inferno raged around them – in turn, putting their own lives on the line.' 

However, the Cullen Report which followed a public inquiry into the disaster, found that a wide range of issues had undermined the effectiveness of the emergency response, Mr Doran said. 'Nine of the report's 106 recommendations addressed standby vessels – not surprising given that 87% of the 187 ships in the fleet were converted fishing trawlers and only seven were purpose-built,' he noted.

Silver Pit – whose crew rescued 37 out of the 61 men who survived the disaster – was described by the report as 'essentially unsuitable' for its role, Mr Doran added. 

While the emergency response and rescue vessel fleet had been dramatically improved in response to the Cullen report, Mr Doran said there are continued concerns over issues such as communications, fatigue, training and the loss of experienced personnel. 

'What should worry us all is the way in which safety appears to have been put on the back burner following the oil price crash,' he warned. 'We've not only seen the thousands of highly skilled and experienced offshore workers being sent to the scrapheap, but also witnessed savage cuts in their conditions and training budgets being slashed.' 

Mr Doran said unions need to 'fight harder than ever to ensure that the legacy left by the Cullen report is not sacrificed in the drive to cut costs and improve efficiency in response to the fall in the price of a barrel of oil'.