REUTERS | Bob Strong

Health and safety issues in offshore extraction and the construction sector

The HSE recently released its provisional offshore safety statistics for 2009/10 and the figures may raise some concern in the industry. The number of fatalities has risen (after a good year in 2008/9). In addition, the combined fatal and major injury rate rose for the first time since 2001/2. The numbers don’t look good, but what are the underlying issues for health and safety regulation in oil and gas, and for construction?

The latest figures warn against complacency

Historically, major incidents have played an important role in improving safety in the oil and gas industry. In the UK we only have to think back to the Buncefield explosion, or indeed Piper Alpha. This year the Deepwater Horizon disaster has highlighted the dangers associated with offshore drilling, not only to workers, but also to the surrounding environment.

If Deepwater Horizon raised concern about oil and gas safety, the HSE’s latest figures reinforce that view. However, when looked at in the context of statistics for the past decade, the offshore safety figures may simply indicate a short blip in a generally encouraging trend. Nonetheless, the industry’s good work in improving health and safety over the past decade should not lead to complacency.

Members of the construction industry must also avoid complacency. This sector has also seen a trend of gradual improvement, yet it remains one of the the most dangerous industries for employees. Against this background, it is instructive to look at the cornerstones of health and safety: regulation, enforcement and public awareness.

The role of regulation

In this context, the construction industry provides a useful example. The construction industry has shown that government intervention (by which we mean regulation) is a useful tool for improving health and safety. Imposing rules (including the CDM Regulations and, more recently, the tower crane register) has forced the industry to address important issues. At the same time, an expanded range of sanctions (both for directors and at a corporate level) has also helped.

The evidence shows that improved regulation is important, and the current government has introduced new initiatives on health and safety regulation, from an urgent review of offshore extraction, to re-evaluating the CDM regulations. However, these reviews are ongoing and this government’s apparent commitment to health and safety is tempered by the previous government’s rejection of several of the proposals set out in the Donaghy report on construction deaths.

Clearly, the UK has taken huge strides in its regulatory regime in the last twenty years and the government has some (albeit vague) plans to improve regulation further. So what about the other cornerstones of health and safety: enforcement and public awareness?

Resourcing is a key factor

One area where successive governments have been criticised is in their resourcing of the HSE. As a result, site inspections and the enforcement of safety rules remain a concern. In additon, we must not forget the HSE’s role in publicising health and safety issues, especially at a time when there is concern about whether the health and safety regime is understood by those that it affects. The sheer scale of the construction and oil and gas industries is not reflected in the number of HSE staff devoted to these tasks.

Unfortunately, the government’s spending cuts make a significant increase in HSE manpower unlikely and “efficiency” savings will not be enough. Indeed, the lack of resources may get even worse, as the UK’s nuclear programme starts taking up more HSE time. This is worrying, as greater resources for enforcement and publicity may be the key to building on the improvements brought about by better regulation. If the HSE statistics teach us anything, it is the need for constant endeavour in all areas; relying on the status quo does not guarantee that safety figures will remain the same, let alone improve.

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