The head of the Health and Safety Executive’s offshore division said yesterday he would be very sceptical if any North Sea oil companies claimed they could keep up maintenance and reduce worker numbers at the same time.
Ian Whewell said assurances that maintenance could be managed by a smaller workforce at a time when platforms were getting older would be “simply not credible”.
He said, however, that no oil companies had made any approaches to the HSE with plans to axe offshore jobs to save money during the recession.
Mr Whewell told a press conference in Aberdeen that HSE inspectors would make sure that cost-cutting measures being imposed by oil companies on contractors did not compromise safety, particularly on installations managed by contractors on behalf of oil companies.
He said that about 80% of the offshore workforce of around 25,000 people was employed by contractors.
Mr Whewell added on the subject of costs being squeezed: “It’s a big concern. The potential is for it to affect health and safety.
“It’s difficult to see if the contractor workforce was to be reduced, and this is responsible for maintenance and other work, that it can’t affect health and safety.
“We are monitoring the situation.
“Assurances that maintenance could be managed by a smaller workforce where assets are getting older are simply not credible. I would be very sceptical.”
Mr Whewell was speaking on the day the HSE published a review of the oil and gas sector; 18 months after a critical report on about 100 platforms.
The Key Programme 3 (KP3) report had discovered backlog levels of non-routine maintenance was as high as 26,000 hours, while only half of deluge equipment – used to supply water to fight fires – passed a test.
HSE chairwoman Judith Hackitt said there was a number of positives to draw from this review, most notably that work had been undertaken to deal with all the issues that posed the most serious concern.
But she said it was still a “work in progress”.
Mrs Hackitt added: “HSE made clear at its recent strategy launch that the recession must not become an excuse for cutting back on health and safety. Nowhere is this more true than in offshore operations where there can be no excuse for another Piper Alpha disaster.”
The tragedy in July 1988 claimed 167 lives. A gas leak on the platform ignited, engulfing it in a massive fireball. Only 62 people survived.
Malcolm Webb, chief executive of industry body Oil and Gas UK, has welcomed the HSE’s review into the progress made by the industry in resolving and addressing the issues raised in the KP3 report at the end of 2007.
He was pleased that all the matters that gave rise to significant concern, the so-called “red light issues”, had been resolved satisfactorily.
Mrs Hackitt said at yesterday’s press conference that HSE had held talks with the Oil and Gas UK about future reviews.
She added: “We felt it was a process that should continue. There should be an update something like every two years.”
North Sea workers are to meet today to discuss BP’s cost-cutting plans.
Jake Molloy, regional organiser for the RMT union in Aberdeen, says several hundred people employed offshore by contractors such as Wood Group, Salamis and Cape would see cuts in their pay packages by 10-20% from October 1.
BP says it is targeting areas such as automatic night-shift payments to reduce costs, but Mr Molloy has described the proposed cuts as “unfair and unjust”.
The workers will gather in Glasgow to discuss wage cutting and their response to it.