The pounds 1m-a-year helicopter service has run almost 700 missions since 1979 to the 20 rigs in the remote East Shetland Basin sector, half of which are run by other companies.
But now the oil giant has come under fire over plans to stand down its Bristow Bell 212 chopper in December. A Coastguard helicopter would then have to be scrambled for emergencies from Sumburgh, south Shetland,100 miles away.
Ronnie McDonald, general secretary of the union OILC (the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee) said help for oilmen who fall into the sea or are badly injured on a rig could be delayed by up to two-and-a-half hours in bad weather.
Meanwhile the company, with Esso, is investing pounds 1.3bn on upgrading rigs in the sector. It produces more than 500,000 barrels of oil a day, shared with BP, Chevron, Total, Oryx and Unicol.
Mr McDonald said: "We feel anger. If they can spend that sort of money to enhance production, they can spend a little over pounds 900,000 to maintain a life saving facility that has demonstrated its capability.
"We can say with sadness that someone is going to die who would otherwise be alive had the rescue service been in place."
A Shell spokesman said the company had no option but to scrap the service, because its platform was being towed away, after accommodation improvements to oil rigs.
He said that the company could not fit a helicopter hanger onto its drilling platforms and added that part of its job was to shuttle staff from the "floating hotel" to rigs. This job would disappear with the departure of the "flotel". The company is to provide two extra pilots to man the Sumburgh Coastguard service.
Shell's is the only offshore air sea rescue helicopter in operation. BP scrapped a similar service on the Forties field off Aberdeen in 1992.
Oil companies are not legally obliged to provide airborne protection, only rescue boats on standby. But OILC is still unhappy. It pointed out that air-sea rescue helicopters are housed on oil rigs in the Norwegian sector.
It has called on its members to write protest letters to energy minister Tim Eggar via their MPs. Industrial action is unlikely, said Mr McDonald, because of the fear of dismissal.
He called on the Government to give Shell a tax break to help save the service. The Treasury gained pounds 2.3bn from North Sea oil and gas taxes, royalties and licences last year.
Last year, the Shell Bell took 33 injured oil workers to hospital in Lerwick, Shetland, or Bergen, Norway. It also rescued six men from the Cormorant Alpha disaster in 1992, when a helicopter ploughed into the sea, killing 11.
Last year Steve Wardrope, of Twechar, near Glasgow, was airlifted to Bergen with serious head injuries and a broken back after falling 30ft on a platform. He said: "It is ridiculous. That chopper is an integral part of the safety system on the North Sea. It's just a cost-cutting exercise."Reuse content