The gas explosion shook the 'Ocean Odyssey', killing a man in his 20s and setting the water ablaze, just as attempts were being made to exhume bodies from the Piper Alpha platform lying at the bottom of the sea. The coincidence could not have been sharper. It was the third gas explosion in the North Sea in less than 3 months.
The only reason more people weren't killed last Thursday was becuase the rig was already on alert. All non-essential personnel had prepared to evacuate an hour beforehand and 66 escaped alive.
At the time of writing the precise technical explanation of the explosion is unclear.
The rig operators admitted an equipment failure on Tuesday but did not admit a failure of the blow out preventer mechanism. No doubt media commentators will prattle on about the difference between drilling rigs and production platforms, like Piper Alpha. One common thread is clear though - capitalism's insatiable thirst for profits and contempt for the safety of the flesh and blood humans who produce those profits.
The semi-submersible drilling platform in the Fulmer Field 140 miles east of Aberdeen had obviously been struggling with high pressure gas (and possibly oil) for weeks.
- Engineers had been pumping very high pressure 'mud' (a mixture of water, rock and chemicals) down the centre of the drilling pipe to stop uncontrollable surges of gas or oil. In the event this 'mud' may eventually have contributed to the disaster.
- Workers had reported a string of gas leaks before the explosion. Jim Murphy, 'mud' engineer, claims he sent a telex to rig operators Arco detailing leaks two weeks beforehand. He adds that men had suffered physical illness from gas fumes.
Billy Wood, a technician, reports persistent gas problems and repeated requests to abandon the drilling well - all ignored by the rig operators. It would hav meant the loss of a £2 million investment.
- The rig had already stopped drilling operations while engineers battled to control the situation.
Yet, incredibly, the Ocean Odyssey passed its yearly safety inspection only the week before the explosion!
This Monday brought further revelations from two workers in charge of daily inspections of the main pipe joining the rig to the seabed. They claim to have reported, in writing, leaks of hydraulic fluid from the main safety blow out preventer mechanism. Their warnings were also ignored.
They also report faults on both the drive and reserve motors for the mechanism only days before the explosion.
It would be difficult to write a fictional indictment of capitalism more damning than its record in the North Sea.
The oil industry is the most dangerous in Britain. It is also the only one not covered by the Health and Safety Inspectorate. In Britain the same department (of Energy) is responsible both for boosting production and for safety!
Tory Energy Secretary Cecil Parkinson has already rejected renewed calls for an independent inspectorate. Campbell Reid, divisional officer of the MSF union, claims oil companies and the civil service even swap personnel.
Since the Piper Alpha disaster, the world's worst ever, killing 167 people, workers have been voting with their feet over these declining safety standards. Union sources reports hundreds leaving for safer jobs onshore - on one occasion 90 men were due to start an offshore job but only three turned up! Unions fear skilled oil workers will be replaced by unskilled labour, sometimes with forged safety certificates.
The Department of Energy reports a new surge in offshore exploration in the North Sea. A survey by Grampian Council even believes there may be a shortage of rigs by the end of the year. Yet this drilling takes place when the price of oil is less than 40% of its 1986 high, so the pressure is on to cut corners and disregard safety.
Or, in the words of one oil consultant, companies "cannot afford to be over-extravagant on safety." We've seen precisely what this means in the last three months - deaths and serious injury.
A meeting of hundreds of oil workers organised by the inter-union Offshore Oil Committee heard complaints of economy cutbacks, neglect of safety procedures, 'tidy ups' before safety inspectors arrive and threats to workers who report breaches of safety. If branded as troublemakers, they will not find other jobs.
Oil companies have used contract labour to drive down wages and conditions and to exclude union organisation.
Only 37 of the 223 crew of Piper Alpha were employees of Occidental. A 'hook-up agreement' established the in the '70s between unions and management greatly improved pay, leave and travel allowances for oil workers and allowed unions to represent workers during grievance or disciplinary procedures.
Union figures showed drops in salary of nearly one third for equivalent jobs if workers were forced to leave the 'hook-up agreement'. So companies opt for cheaper contract workers.
Unions have a tremendous opportunity and a responsibility to organise workers in the oil industry. They have an immensely powerful argument for union 'interference' in policing safety on rigs and platforms following these tragedies.
Oil workers have a tremendous power over the country's economy. When workers in BP's West Sole gas field 'quit' en masse over safety (following the Piper Alpha tragedy) they won immediate concessions.
Workers are keen to get organised too; a group of 25 workers on the Fulmar platform wrote to last Sunday's Observer saying they want union recognition. They have been threatened with victimisation for sticking to a union agreed ban on working more than two weeks at one stretch.
The trade union movement must seize this chance to unionise a relatively new industry.
The piper alpha disaster article reminded me of a nearly forgotten story of working class womens militancy from my home town forty years ago. On the 11th of January 1968 the Hull trawler St. Romanus was lost with all 20 crew members in the north sea. On the 26th of January another Hull Trawler the Kingston Peridot was lost with another 20 men off Iceland. However the Coastguards and Navy did'nt start the search for days because both Trawlers had put to sea at the most treacherous time of the year without radio operators.
By the 29th of January it was obvious to all on Hessle Road (The area were most of the trawlermen and their families lived) that forty men had been lost and anger began to rise. Lilian Bilocca had not lost her trawlerman Husband and "deckie learner" son in the disaster, but she was determined that this should not happen again. She and other working class women on Hessle Road organised a meeting. At the meeting the local Labour MP offered sympathy and the local official from National Union of Seaman John Prescott talked of solidarity from the merchant seamen, but it was the women in the hall that demanded “march on the dock. Let the owners have it.”
The next day the women and others marched into the owners offices on St Andrews Dock and demanded that the owners meet there six point saftey charter. The owners refused to make any serious concessions. So Bilocca and the rest decided that direct action was needed. The next day they discovered a Trawler was sailing with no radio operator. The women attempted to climb on board and block the docks lock gates to stop it sailing. They failed, but the trawlermen aboard another boat about to leave were inspired to go on strike and refuse to sail until there trawler met the saftey demands. A day later news reached Hull of the loss of a third Hull trawler: the Ross Cleveland with 18 hands. 58 workers had been lost, and the minute that loss was known the Owners as usual stopped pay. Now the TGWU (the main trawlermans union) and Labour MPs began to listen to the demands of the Hull women, when for so long they had refused to face down the owners. The women marched down to the docks offices daily until all the 6 safety demands were met. The women acted in a situation on the trawlers were the unions were historically weak and saftey had been completely disregarded by the bosses, the state and even the unions. In a deeply misongynist and deprived working class community the womens solidarity had made a real difference to saftey at sea.
It's probably an over-statement to describe John Prescott as 'Leader' of the NUS - I think 1968 was the year he became a full-time officer of union - but nevertheless, a good story and a good point.
Thanks for letting me know. I have revised the article.
I dont know the details but at the time the National Union of Seamen and the Dockers seemed far more militant then the T & G on the Trawlers. Perhaps this was down to the history of Skipper Owners and the fact the Trawlers had smaller crews. Another problem was that most of the trawlermens money comes from the share of the catch which forced crews and skippers to take risk's. Fishing in bad weather to make up their income probably led to the sinking the Gaul (rather then the russians as many believed).