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Shell Brent: Is the current safety case regime failing?



In reply to the letter from Ian Whewell, Head of HSE’s Offshore Safety Division (OSD) in Aberdeen, Upstream 14th July 2006

In the above letter Mr. Whewell refutes the statement that there is high level incompetence and chronic weakness in the application of the current Safety Case regime, including failure of the verification scheme.  He states that this allegation is not supported by any evidence.

My position, in direct opposition to the statements by Mr. Whewell is that for the Brent facilities, and specifically Brent Bravo, is that from 1999 to 2003 my estimate is that the risk to persons were some 1000 times higher than the risk levels submitted in the Safety Case, and perhaps 10 times that figure. 

There is just no conventional means of measuring these risks, but suffice to say they were dangerously high. 

What Mr. Whewell fails to recognise is that this assessment is significantly supported by his own staff.  On 27th May 2005 an internal OSD note indicated that recent Integrity Review carried out by Shell had shown up similar safety related issues to those reported by the Platform Safety Management Review (PSMR) in 1999, if not more so. 

Mr. Ray Paterson goes on to say that in reference to 1999 ‘not much has physically changed’.  In a later note he compounds this by saying ‘I would like to raise the issue of significant high levels and apparent increase of maintenance backlog (out of compliance) on most of the offshore installations’.

The reader needs to appreciate that these statements made by OSD officials related to conditions pertaining in May 2005, some 18 months or so after the fatal accident event on Brent Bravo, and a month or so after Shell pled guilty to operating Brent Bravo in a dangerous condition at Stonehaven Sheriff Court.

As to the efficiency of the Offshore Safety Division (OSD) of the HSE as an enforcing authority, there appeared at that time to be significant concerns within Mr. Whewell’s organisation. 

In a letter to him from Mr. Robert Paterson on 18/11/2005, Mr. Paterson asks amongst other things
•  Do our current inspection techniques give us what we want
• could we do it differently, should we be more incisive
• what should we do to ensure our inspectors have a real (or greater) impact
• why are we not finding the things that the Shell PSMR team were finding (apparently) easily
• is our approach too wide and why are we not getting greater penetration through inspection

Maybe Mr. Whewell could better use his energy not in bland denial but in answering the questions so eloquently put to him by Mr Paterson which are clearly in the public interest.
The OSD seem to the outsider to be acutely sensitive to any suggestion that it has failed, or is failing.  But if you care to analyse the failures in the offshore safety regime highlighted in all the evidence passed to the OSD the principal cause of the failures rest with the Duty Holder. 

The revolutionary aspect of Cullen recommendations was to twice remove the new Regulator from the hardware.  The new Regulator would be more an inspector of the Duty Holder management systems and internal controls.  The inspection of the hardware, the verification of its ability to function as and when required to meet its performance criteria, would be the responsibility of the Duty Holder, using either internal or external, but independent departments or agencies, to demonstrate compliance with his legal obligations. 

This is the area where most of the concern lies, the verification scheme was to keep the Asset Managers ‘honest’, but it failed allowing rogue Asset Managers to operate as they liked, with scant regard to their duty of care.

In summary the residual risks to workers offshore (using Brent as a case study) have significantly risen since their Safety Cases were submitted in the early 90’s.

The culpability for this is predominantly that of Shell, as Duty Holder.  If the enforcing authority gets involved at all to reduce these risks it appears to do so reactively.  That is after a major accident, or after notified of concerns by the workforce.  While it defends it performance by stating ‘look how good we are the number of prohibition and improvement notices are rising’ it does not seem to realise that as a performance indicator this is a measure of failure, not success, since it is reducing risks only after the fact. 
If in the post Cullen world the enforcing authority had a crucial role.  This was to maintain the residual risks to workers offshore at the ALARP levels as stated in the respective installation Safety Cases.  In this it has totally failed, and will continue to do so without some strengthening of the current regime. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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