Sunday, June 30, 2013

Disaster that won't be forgotten. Struggle that still goes on.

PIPER ALPHA at night. 167 killed as North Sea rig blazed.
TWENTY FIVE years after the worst ever oil rig disaster, the blaze on Piper Alpha, in the North Sea, in which 167 workers were killed, there has been a conference to consider the lessons. The BBC is to screen a film about it. But trade unionists fear lives could be lost again, because the government is reducing provision for health and safety inspections in offshore oiland gas, as in other industries, and because workers are frightened to open their mouth about health and safety in case it leads to them losing their jobs and being blacklisted, in the same way as has happened to building workers.   

Trouble on the Piper Alpha rig, operated by Occidental oil in the sea north-east of Aberdeen, started with maintenance issues. On July 6, 1988, one of two pumps sending oil and gas to the mainland had its safety valve removed for routine maintenance, and replaced with a temporary cover.  The on-duty engineer filled out a permit which stated that Pump A was not ready and must not be switched on under any circumstances.

When the night shift began at 6pm, the engineer found the on duty custodian busy, so placed the permit in the control room, and left. This permit disappeared. There was another for general overhaul of the pump , and so did another for genral overhaul of the pump

At 9:45 p.m. problems with a methanol system had led to an accumulation of hydrate ice formed by gas and water combining, and causing a blockage in Pump B. So pump A was restarted, apparently without realising it had no safety valve.  The temporary plate cover was obscured from view by machinery. At 9.55pm escaping gas ignited and caused the first of two explosions, also damging the firefighting system. While the firefighting system was not on automatic control and could not be remotely started from the control room, two outlying platforms joined by pipe to Piper Alpha continued pumping oil and gas into the damaged rig, where it escaped and fuelled the flames.

10:04 p.m. The control room was abandoned. Piper Alpha's design made no allowances for the destruction of the control room, and the platform's organisation disintegrated. No attempt was made to use loudspeakers or to order an evacuation. Emergency procedures instructed personnel to make their way to lifeboat stations, but the fire prevented them from doing so. Instead the men moved to the fireproofed accommodation block beneath the helicopter deck to await further instructions. Wind, fire and smoke prevented helicopter landings and no further instructions were given, with smoke beginning to penetrate the personnel block.

As the crisis mounted, two men donned protective gear in an attempt to reach the diesel pumping machinery below decks and activate the firefighting system. They were never seen again.

By the time rescue helicopters reached the scene, flames over one hundred metres in height and visible a huindred kilometres away prevented safe approach. Tharos, a specialist firefighting vessel, was able to approach the platform, but could not prevent the rupture of the Tartan pipeline, about two hours after the start of the disaster, and it was forced to retreat due to the intensity of the fire. Two crewmen from the standby vessel MV Sandhaven were killed when an explosion on the platform destroyed their Fast Rescue Craft; the survivor Ian Letham later received the George Medal.

The blazing remains of the platform were eventually extinguished three weeks later by a team led by famed firefighter Red Adair, despite reported conditions of 80 mph (130 km/h) winds and 70-foot (20 m) waves. The part of the platform which contained the galley where about 100 victims had taken refuge was recovered in late 1988 from the sea bed, and the bodies of 87 men were found inside.

Various recommendations were made by an inquiry into the disaster, and accepted by the industry. It was also recommended that the government transfer responsibility for safety in the North Sea from the Department of Energy to the Health and Safety Executive, to avoid a conflict of interest between productivity and safety considerations. Survivors and relatives formed an association to campaign for better safety.

The disaster also boosted a determination by offshore oil industry workers to organise themselves. The Offshore Industries Liaison Committee, formed to link workers regardless of trade or original union eventually became a union in its own right, though not officially recognised by management or within the TUC. In 2008 it became part of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), a merger which made sense as the RMT already had diver members.

It is Jake Molloy,  formerly OILC general secretary, and now Aberdeen-based regional organiser for the RMT, who is warning that 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.

Oil and Gas UK, a lobby group for the major oil companies,  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".

Jake Molloy says 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 is worried that companies driving to cut costs cut endanger jobs and safety, with workers frightened to risk their employment if they raise safety isues.     

Molloy says oil companies subcontract 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 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,"

See also:

There are obvious parallels here with the building trade where workers who raised safety issues found themselves blacklisted. In fact, among the names which stood out among the files of the employers' blacklist Consulting Assocation was that of Glasgow academic Charles Woolfson, apparently becoming of interest after he criticised safety standards in the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster. There were suggestions big companies could put pressure on the institution employing him.

 How an academic got on the blacklist

OILC to RMT, and Enemies

Eight different unions were trying to organise in the offshore oil industry before the OILC got started. In their hard struggle for recognition, safety representation, and wages commensurate with the industry's profits as well as the risks and harsh conditions they faced on the North Sea, workers not only had to contend with hardfaced employers but with two-faced union officialdom.

In March 1991, union officials signed a new 'hook up' agreement with the bosses, over the heads of the workers. Rank and file resentment and anger led to the OILC declaring itself an independent trade union, which gained official certification.They also gained support from the Norwegian offshore union OFT.

Efforts continued to win united action with other unions, for instance to gain better pay and conditions for the worse off workers, like those in catering services, often migrant workers, whom RMT and the TGWU represented.

But even when the OILC decided to rejoin the family, as it were, by merging with the RMT in 2008, its troubles were not over. Two larger unions, the Transport and General (TGWU) and Amicus, had merged and held their first joint executive meeting, and as the bureaucrats looked for ways to chuck their weight about some of them discussed  a move to chuck the RMT out of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

I thought at first this was a heavy handed follow up to the RMT being expelled from the Labour Party. This had been because it permitted its Glasgow branch to support the Scottish Socialist Party. But I was told in my union branch  that the RMT's "crime" in the eyes of some people was that it had accepted the OILC, a union outside the TUC, to enter the fold.

At that I pointed out the hypocrisy, to say the least, when our new partners in Amicus had brought back in the EEPTU electrical union, and some of its leaders and methods. The EETPU had been outside because it was expelled from the TUC, after Wapping. The OILC was only outside because of its efforts to organise workers, not for scabbing as the EEPTU had done performing Murdoch's bidding.

The irony was obvious enough, as my branch had originated from the breakaway Electrical and Plumbing Industries Union, formed by workers opposed to the right-wing EEPTU leadership and determined to stay with the mainstream trade union movement. But we too had been denounced as a "split" by some of the same people condemning the OILC, before we eventually voted to join the TGWU.     

 Anyway, others more important and influential than me must have thought the same thing, because I never heard more of the plot to oust the RMT, and I don't know whether it ever amounted to more than talk or if anything was done, or even recorded of it. It is possible the change of leadership in Unite put the matter to rest. Still, I am recording it now as a reminder of what not just the RMT/OILC but the decent majority of Unite members are up against.  

Piper Alpha oil rig disaster

The OILC Saga

Struggle in North Sea Oil industry

Concern as companies drive to cuts costs

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