This weekend, four families are in mourning, thousands of co-workers are shaken and one of Scotland’s most important industries is at risk.
It might be newsworthy that the first female off-shore worker has lost her life but that’s just crass. Four people who had every right to expect that they could be transported safely to and from their place of work have lost their lives. That’s a tragedy whether they are male, female, black or white. Their characteristics matter not a jot; the fact of their deaths is what counts. We can all only offer our prayers, thoughts and sympathy, knowing full well they are neither sought nor wanted, but there is something reassuring in realising that for all that divides us, we can, when the occasion arises, unite in common currency. Shame, it is often only in response to a terrible calamity like this.
Every day, we all climb on to our chosen modes of transport to wend our way to work. Nothing compares, though, to the courage of thousands of off-shore workers who every day trust their safety to helicopters, often in appalling weather to shuttle back and forth between the mainland and the iron islands hundreds of miles from anywhere which are their places of work. To most, so frequent were these journeys, that it would have been like getting on and off a bus. Not now though.
Between 1976 and 2002, there were six fatal helicopter crashes in the North Sea with 79 people losing their lives. Since 2002, there have been at least four helicopter crashes involving loss of life. In those incidents, 38 people have died, with two further crashes in which all passengers and crew were rescued. UNITE states that there have been five ditching incidents in four years.*
The pattern is clear: the rate of incidents and loss of life has accelerated in recent years. There have been inquiries and investigations and calls for action, some of it radical. But… put it this way: had there been this number of rail, plane or indeed, bus crashes with a similar proportion of deaths in recent years, would the clamour for change not have been deafening?
The referendum debate has brought into sharp focus how important the oil and gas industry in the North Sea still is to our overall economy. Each side might argue the pros and cons around the margins, but the central fact is that here is a sector which makes a significant contribution, both now and in the future, to GDP and national wealth. Much of the rest of our economy and how we go about our daily lives is lubricated, literally, by what is extracted from the North Sea. We all have a stake, surely, in ensuring that the ability of the oil and gas sector to contribute to our economy continues. And if the workforce cannot get there and back effectively, efficiently and safely that – on a brutal level – has implications for our national economy. In short, our economic well-being depends on it.
Yet, we appear collectively to overlook our duty to this workforce and its right to safety. For all its importance, the oil and gas sector is one few of us know much about. Highly technical and largely out of sight, few of us bother to join the dots on our energy supply journey. We tend to take it all for granted and not bother with the detail of the how and why,
At the very least, we should feel confident that someone is responsible for the safety of the workforce and indeed, the wider sector. A simple thing surely, yet in reality it is complex. Partly that’s because of the range of players, all of whom are keen to protect and promote their own interests. There’s the sector body, Oil and Gas UK, representing all the companies. Then there are the global multi-nationals – BP, Total, Shell and the like. The helicopter companies include Bond and CHC. There’s trades unions with RMT, UNITE and BALPA representing the pilots. The state, it would seem, is represented only by the health and safety executive. And they all come together in the jauntily named Step Change for Safety network, which has tasked itself with the mission of “making the UK the safest place to work in the oil and gas industry“.
This network has a dizzying array of members, a leadership team and a range of steering groups which also then have working groups. Ten minutes on its website are enough to suggest how and why workforce safety might be being compromised.
First, the very fact that it is a voluntary membership body. There is nothing to stop key players sticking two fingers up and refusing to play. Second, the membership nature means it relies on the contributions and fees of its members for its existence. In short, it needs to keep those with the deepest pockets sweet and therein sits a temptation to be led by the biggest players. Look at its leadership team: one place for the health and safety executive, a smattering for the unions and other representatives and every other seat occupied by someone whose motivation is making a profit.
Which is not to denigrate their desire to make this body work, to devote proper time, energy and commitment to it and to ensure that all aspects of safety are properly addressed. But there are bound to be competing priorities: a glance at the remit of the Helicopter Safety Steering Group would appear to confirm this.
Strip away the jargon from the Group’s priorities and there is still nothing which screams at you “stopping people dying”. This final fault-line is possibly the most damning. One of the Group’s priorities is to publish, promote and ensure “consistent application of common aviation guidelines across the UK offshore industry“, thereby implying that none currently exist and those that do are inconsistently applied. Which basically means everyone is currently doing their own thing. And even if the Steering Group does manage to produce a common set of guidelines, the voluntary nature of it all means there is no compulsion to behave consistently.
This suggests that one of our most important and dangerous industries is regulated by its players with largely a light touch. The absence of either of our governments round the Step Change table is remarkable; the absence of a role for the state in the form of laws, rules and regulations is shocking. It wouldn’t be allowed elsewhere so what is it that allows for a hands-off approach here?
I thought, embarking on this post, that the call might be for a public inquiry but too often, these end up being unsatisfying vehicles for all concerned, not least families who have lost loved ones. They can take years to run their course and recommendations are no guarantee of change. Indeed, we can all point to inquiry reports which have been left to gather dust because what they recommend is costly, inconvenient and inexpedient.
What we need to do is act on what we know. Currently, too many offshore workers are dying getting to and from their workplace. Their transport system is not safe and does not appear to be statutorily regulated. No one has been prosecuted in recent years for any of these deaths. The sector has been allowed to move at its own pace to effect change. Despite the best intentions of all the players, things are getting worse, not better.
And what we know makes a compelling argument for the state to take charge and make the vaunted step change in safety happen. It’s the least we owe the workforce.