North Sea oil culture needs to change, says union leader after helicopter crash

Rig workers fear they risk being blacklisted by employers by speaking up about safety concerns, claims Bob Crow

A trade union leader has said there is need for a change in the culture that has left North Sea oil workers fearful of speaking up about safety concerns in case they are blacklisted by employers.

The comments by Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, follow a commitment from offshore companies that they will not force staff to immediately travel on helicopters after last week's crash off the Shetlands, which claimed four lives.

Crow cautiously welcomed the promise on Friday but said he would wait to see if it was kept.

"There is a lack of trust and its not surprising given a history of blacklisting by employers. The use of NRB [not-required-back] labelling has left some petrified that their careers could come to an end."

A Super Puma helicopter crashed into the sea on 23 August, killing four people on board, just weeks after the oil industry remembered the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha explosion which killed 167.

Crow said it was wrong that a profitable sector such as oil and gas should still be debating whether trade union officials could be speaking to their members offshore. Unions have long had a right to this but in practise it did not happen, according to Crow.

The RMT leader has received a personal commitment from Malcolm Webb, the chairman of Oil & Gas UK employers group, about platform visits and his union will be present at helipads over the coming days to ensure workers rights not to travel on helicopters are respected.

All flights on Super Puma aircraft were grounded after the accident last week but were given the green light to fly again after a meeting in Aberdeen between employers, pilots and unions.

The type of Super Puma involved in that crash, the L2, is back in the air but for the current time it is being restricted to non-passenger operations.

The L1 and EC225 types are back to normal business despite the latter being suspended until recently owing to a spate of accidents dating back to 2009 that were attributed to technical problems. There has in total been five helicopter accidents over the past four years – one resulting in the death of 16 people.

The nervousness among oil workers about flying and speaking openly about their concerns was highlighted in some of the media interviews during the aftermath of last week's accident.

"The EC225 is a flying death trap," one oil worker with 20 years experience told the BBC. "The internal layout means [passengers] in the back … are so close that your knees are interlocked with the passenger sitting opposite you."

Another offshore veteran said: "If a fixed-wing aircraft had as many accidents as the Super Puma nobody would fly in it." The partner of a man who works on rigs West of Shetland said: "The fact that workers are put in this position … where they feel speaking the truth about safety issues concerning transport to and from work may result in lost jobs, is an absolute disgrace."

The current concerns reinforce offshore "bullying" claims made by whistlebowers to the Guardian last month amid the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster.

A whistleblower warned that a system of safety representatives set up to underpin the integrity of North Sea oil and gas platforms following the 1988 disaster was being made a mockery of owing to an atmosphere of offshore bullying by some managers.

One offshore worker, who has spent 20 years in the industry, told the Guardian that some serious injuries continue to be covered up rather than reported while "lost time accidents" – a key industry safety measurement – can be manipulated by keeping injured employees on board a rig until it is time for their leave.

Jake Molloy, Aberdeen-based offshore organiser at the RMT union, supported the claims, estimating that the safety rep structure and industrial relations, in general, are either "poor or completely dysfunctional" on 40% of North Sea rigs or platforms.

Oil & Gas UK said on Friday it was committed as the union to ending bullying and NRB-type practices. A spokeswoman said: "The whole question of NRB is one we have been working to address and stamp out. We have produced guidelines which seek to give procedures to be followed about how safety issues are raised and addressed." © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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