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Offshore injuries and leaks fall but complacency is biggest danger

24 August 2011

The number of offshore oil and gas leaks that could potentially lead to a major incident has fallen, according to recently released safety statistics. Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that there were 73 major or significant hydrocarbon releases associated with offshore installations in 2010/11, compared with 85 the previous year. Interestingly, there were 61 recorded in 2008/09; the lowest since HSE began regulating the industry.

Overall, there continues to be a downward trend in the total of all reported hydrocarbon releases offshore.

For the fourth year running, no workers were killed during offshore activities regulated by HSE and 2010/11 also saw a fall in the number of major injuries. There were 42 reported compared with 50 the previous year, bringing the total in line with the average of the previous five years.

The combined fatal and major injury rate fell to 151.8 per 100,000 workers in 2010/11, compared with 188 in 2009/10. There was also a continued fall in the number of minor injuries that led to three or more days off work, with 106 - down from last year's 110 - which represents a new low in the over three-day injury rate.

There were 432 dangerous occurrences reported in 2010/11; that’s 11 less than the previous year. More than a third were hydrocarbon releases (38.9%) and just over a quarter (25.9%) related to equipment failures.

Steve Walker HSE's Head of Offshore Safety commented: "This year's statistics are a step in the right direction. It is encouraging that this is the fourth consecutive year with no reportable fatalities and a reduction in major injuries. But there is still much work to be done. Hydrocarbon releases are a key indicator of how well the offshore industry is managing its major accident risks, and the industry still hasn't matched or exceeded the record lows of two years ago. I welcome the industry's recent Step Change target of halving the number of hydrocarbon releases over three years. However, although there has been a reduction in oil and gas leaks, the industry needs to pick up the pace of improvement if it is to meet its own target. I expect all operators to be drawing up and implementing plans to achieve that goal. The Gulf of Mexico disaster should continue to be a stark reminder of what can go wrong offshore. HSE will remain tough on companies that fail to protect their workforce by not investing in the fabric and workings of their installations or neglecting to implement effective management systems or workforce training."

The Offshore Safety Statistics Bulletin is designed to show provisional headline figures before a more detailed statistical analysis is published in December. It records fatalities, reportable injuries, occurrence of ill health and dangerous occurrences reported to HSE between 1 April 2010 and 31 March 2011 under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR). Although related to the offshore oil and gas industry, incidents occurring in marine and transport activities are not regulated by HSE.

Hydrocarbon releases are RIDDOR reportable dangerous occurrences (RIDDOR Schedule 2, para 73) occurring on an installation that take the form of unintended petroleum hydrocarbon releases from within the contained process operating system that cause fire or explosion, or require action to prevent or limit the consequences of a potential fire or explosion, or have the potential to cause death or major injury. Liquid releases do not necessarily result in a spill to sea and are frequently contained entirely or partially within the installation.

Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) Offshore Group chair Tim Ingram said: "On the basis of these figures, we simply can't afford to be complacent. While any reduction in hydrocarbon releases is good to see, fundamentally it's always concerning to see any that are deemed major or significant, as it is these that have the potential to cause injuries or fatalities. In light of the offshore industry's Step Change targets for the next three years, if this reduction rate of hydrocarbon release incidents is maintained, we would still miss that 2014 target by some distance. Working on the basis that accidents are preventable, the 42 major injuries are also concerning.”

Based upon provisional figures for 2010/11, the main causes of major injuries were related to slips/trips/falls (16), being trapped or struck by moving objects (15), or injuries associated with lifts/pulls/pushes/swinging of loads (4), accounting for 83% of the total. Some 14 major injuries were to the foot, ankle or lower limb and 19 major injuries were to the upper limb. Upper limb includes finger/thumbs, hand, wrist and rest of upper limb. The 27 (64%) major injuries were due to fracture, but fractures to fingers, thumbs or toes are normally classed as over three-day injuries and not as major injuries.

The number of reported over three-day injuries has reduced this year by four to 106 (a 3.6% fall) and continues the downward trend since 2006/07.

Oil & Gas UK’s Health and Safety Director Robert Paterson commented: “The oil and gas industry welcomes the publication of the HSE’s offshore safety statistics, which reflect the significant effort made in the last 12 months to get back on track after last year’s disappointing performance. The reduction in the number of hydrocarbon releases is a move in the right direction as this remains a top priority and a key focus of the industry’s absolute commitment to continuously improving process safety standards. Maintenance of safety-critical systems remains of paramount importance for all of our member companies. Last year, the UK offshore industry’s safety initiative, Step Change in Safety, agreed with all its member companies to redouble efforts to reduce the number of reportable leaks by 50% over three years. These statistics show that progress towards the target has begun.

“The reduction in the number of major injuries and the fact that we’ve seen a four-year period without a fatality on an offshore installation are also very encouraging. Indeed, in terms of lost time injury rates, the offshore industry continues to outperform general manufacturing and even the public sectors.

“While we acknowledge we’ve made progress compared with last year, there are still areas for us to improve upon. Our efforts to achieve even safer work sites through learning and sharing information on incidents and their underlying causes, and through greater workforce engagement continue as essential elements in the UK oil and gas industry journey towards making the UK the safest offshore sector in the world in which to work.”

IOSH Offshore Group chair Tim Ingram added: "We have seen an improvement in offshore health and safety in UK waters in the last decade. But we need to be learning from all incidents and sharing lessons to make sure we don't have a repeat of the Piper Alpha tragedy, and don't suffer our own Deepwater Horizon incident in the future. IOSH's Offshore Group has its part to play in supporting health and safety professionals in this sector to achieve that aim."

Whilst outside of the scope of the 2010/11 statistics, an investigation into the death of an offshore worker on 16 June 2011 is ongoing.

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