25th anniversary of Piper Alpha and offshore safety standards

Dear Colleagues

25th anniversary of Piper Alpha and offshore safety standards
I am writing to update you on developments in the union’s campaign for continuous improvement in the safety standards protecting offshore workers in the North Sea, in line with the recommendations of the Cullen Report into the Piper Alpha disaster.

On 6th July this year, the union participated in events in Aberdeen to commemorate the 167 lives lost in this tragic accident a quarter of a century ago. Piper Alpha remains the worst safety incident in the history of the offshore oil and gas industry.
The union briefed MPs in the RMT Parliamentary Group for the 25th anniversary of Piper Alpha debate in the House of Commons on 11th July and a motion on this matter will be tabled by a member of the RMT Scottish Parliamentary Group for debate in the Scottish Parliament when MSPs return in September.

In pursuit of the continuous improvement to offshore safety standards recommended by Cullen, the union has recently been campaigning to restore the stand alone, specialist Offshore Safety Division (OSD) of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The OSD was established in 1991 in line with the Cullen Review’s specific recommendations around the regulatory regime for offshore safety:

  • There should be a single regulatory body for offshore safety;
  • The single regulatory body should discharge the safety functions in relation to fire-fighting and life saving appliances;
  • Regulation of offshore safety should in future be discharged by a discrete division of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which is exclusively devoted to offshore safety.

The union was therefore dismayed when the HSE announced at a meeting with the offshore unions and industry on 19th March 2013 that planned internal restructuring will involve the abolition of the OSD and the transfer of offshore safety inspectors into a new ‘Energy Division’ with responsibility for gas, pipeline and mining, as well as offshore safety. The unions and industry were not consulted about this fundamental change to the Cullen inspired offshore safety regime.
In response to this attack, the Parliamentary Group has tabled early day motion 192 to highlight the impact on the workforce and deeply insensitive timing. 30 MPs have signed this to date and members may wish to ask their own MP to sign it if they have not already added their name. EDM 192 is online here: http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2013-14/192

The Parliamentary Group Convenor John McDonnell also wrote to the DWP Minister, Mark Hoban MP, regarding the HSE’s decision and requesting a meeting (offshore safety is not a devolved issue). The Tory HSE Minister declined this request.

Serious concern at the end of a standalone, specialist offshore safety inspectorate within HSE and the link to the safety of the workforce has been expressed by workers themselves. A survey in May 2013 of 5,000 offshore workers by Oilandgaspeople.co.uk found that 75% thought that the decision to scrap the OSD will undermine offshore safety and 62% that it risked repeating a Piper Alpha type disaster.

To add to offshore workers’ concerns over the HSE’s decision, the imminent Offshore Safety Directive from the European Commission (EC) will require the HSE to make further adjustments to the offshore safety regime in order to transpose the Directive into UK law. RMT played a central role in the campaign to persuade the EC to drop its plans for an EU Regulation which would have been far more disruptive but a Directive still requires alteration to the domestic legal framework.
The union wrote to Judith Hackitt, Chair of the HSE, to highlight the concerns of the workforce and to request that the OSD be restored. Unfortunately, the reply received was not reassuring and we remain unconvinced by the HSE’s case for making this change. We will continue to seek further reassurance from HSE and, if necessary, again call for full restoration of the OSD through the Offshore Industry Advisory Committee and the RMT Parliamentary Groups in Edinburgh and London.  
In addition, the union continues to campaign for the development of offshore safety standards which mirror the regime in the Norwegian oil and gas field and for practical solutions to the long standing problem of trade union access to the offshore work place. Both of these reforms, if achieved would improve safety standards for all offshore workers.

I would be grateful if you could bring this circular to the attention of members and I will keep you updated with further developments in the safety regime and other aspects of the offshore industry.

Yours sincerely

Bob Crow
General Secretary