London — The UK's safety watchdog has called on North Sea oil and gas operators to improve their safety procedures around hydrocarbon leaks, which it said continue to occur despite some measures having been taken in recent years to address the issue.
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The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said late Thursday it had written to all offshore oil and gas production operators, warning that a number of recent gas releases had come "perilously close to disaster."
According to industry group Oil & Gas UK, there were 21 "significant" hydrocarbon leaks in the first nine months of 2017 and one major release.
That was the gas leak from Shell's Brent Charlie platform in May last year, which caused the installation to be shut and its workers evacuated.
The HSE at the time warned there had been the potential for fire and explosion.
Chris Flint, HSE's Director of Energy Division, said Thursday that every hydrocarbon release (HCR) was threat to safety, saying it represented a "failure in an operator's management of its risks."
"I recognize the steps the industry has taken to reduce the overall number of HCRs; however HCRs remain a concern, particularly major HCRs because of their greater potential to lead to fires, explosions and multiple losses of life," Flint said.
Oil & Gas UK chief Deirdre Michie said she understood why the HSE wanted to highlight areas where industry could improve.
"We all know there is never room for complacency," Michie said. "We continue to work closely with the HSE to reduce hydrocarbon releases."
"The industry is committed to ensuring lessons are learned and good practice is shared."
UK offshore union, the RMT, welcomed the HSE's initiative, saying the cost-cutting programs implemented across the North Sea in recent years to offset lower oil and gas prices were having an impact on safety.
"We have come close on a few occasions and it's often been luck as opposed to good management that a disaster was avoided," the RMT said.
"This intervention by the HSE comes at a time when the pressure on the offshore workforce is immense in terms of cuts, increased workload and increased working hours," it said.
The HSE said a new approach to safety was needed and has asked industry senior leaders to look "critically" at their own operations.
"Experience from our investigations is that HCRs typically happen because there have been failings across the board," Flint said.
"Poor plant condition, and breaches of procedures are often immediate causes, but beneath that we often find a lack of leadership, a poor safety culture, and evidence that weaknesses have existed for some time, but haven't been picked up through audit, assurance and review and then dealt with," he said.
The letter asks operators to carry out a review of their process safety leadership and assurance, audit and review elements of their safety management systems.
It requires operators to respond to HSE by July 20 with a summary of their improvement activities and plan arising from their self-assessment.
"The HSE has committed to feeding back significant findings from the exercise to the industry later in the year," it said.