A leading oil services company has been fined £300,000 after losing radioactive material on a North Sea rig for four hours – with potentially devastating consequences for workers on board.
Schlumberger Oilfield UK admitted breaching health and safety legislation following an incident on the Ensco 101 mobile drilling rig in April, 2008.
Last night safety bosses said the incident could have caused serious injury to the 14 workers on board and that anyone who touched the material – even for a few minutes – faced an increased risk of getting cancer.
The company, which has an office in Aberdeen, had been contracted to carry out surveying work as part of a Maersk drilling programme for the Cawdor well, 210 miles east of Dundee, when the incident happened.
The work involved lowering a scientific tool fitted with a radioactive source into the well. The operation is carried out to get a picture and data from the reservoir – with the radiation used to create an x-ray image.
However, the source was not loaded properly during preparations and it lay on the drill floor for around four hours before being spotted, Aberdeen Sheriff Court heard yesterday.
Last night Elaine Taylor, who leads the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal’s Health and Safety Division, said the incident was “wholly avoidable”.
“This incident could have had devastating consequences for the workers involved in the operation. Workers who were in close proximity to the source were placed in danger as a result of failings on a range of issues including risk assessment, the system of work, training and instruction,” she said.
“Failures to properly respect health and safety can have a huge impact on our lives.”
Health and Safety Executive inspector Gillian Rodaks said the consequences of the incident could have been horrific had anyone touched the radioactive material.
She said: “Loss of control of any radioactive source is extremely serious, particularly of the size involved in this incident, and it was only by good fortune that the source was recovered in a relatively short period of time.
“Had someone held it, even just for a few minutes, they would have received a significant radiation dose which may have resulted in injuries to their hands and increased their risk of developing cancer in later life.
“The incident was entirely foreseeable and preventable. The possibility of a worker failing to correctly load a radioactive source from a mobile container into a logging tool had not been identified in the company’s risk assessment – adequate control measures were therefore not in place to control this risk.”
She added: “Too many incidents of this nature occur when users fail to carry out this simple task. This case should serve to remind employers and employees, whether in industry, medicine or research, of the need to be constantly vigilant when working with radioactive sources.”
Jake Molloy, spokesman for the RMT union in Aberdeen, said the incident must act as a “wake-up call” for the industry.
He added: “This is a serious, serious incident and I expect that the majority of people on board had no idea of the dangers they were being exposed to, which is extremely worrying. Lessons must be learned.”
The company would have been fined £450,000, but Sheriff Douglas Cusine reduced the penalty to £300,000 because of the firm’s early guilty plea.
Last night a Schlumberger spokeswoman said it was committed to preventing such an incident from happening again.
She said: “The incident arose as a result of a failure in the safety management system, including a failure by an engineer to complete a Schlumberger standard operation. Full external and internal investigations were conducted immediately after the incident in 2008.
“Schlumberger has at all times fully co-operated with the HSE investigation and has put in place procedures, to the full satisfaction of the HSE, to ensure that such an incident cannot be repeated in Schlumberger operations.
“Schlumberger gives safety the highest priority in all of its operations and has comprehensive safety management systems in place. Prior to this incident Schlumberger had no previous convictions and an exemplary safety record.”
A Maersk spokesman said: “We are satisfied that all the necessary corrective actions have been put in place, and we continue to monitor and audit process safety and management systems on a regular basis.”