The death of John Jarvis is a test case which is arousing concern in the oil industry because of the implications for thousands of other men who worked on the same rig, or on other rigs in similar situations.
Mr Jarvis, the father of five children, died of chronic myeloid leukaemia in September 1991 at the age of 54. His death is believed to be the first reported among oil rig workers which has been linked to radiation.
Expert medical opinion supporting the legal case brought by his widow. Sally Jarvis, has linked her husband's death to exposure to gamma radiation, used to check welds in pipelines for hidden defects on rigs such as the Thistle Alpha platform where Mr Jarvis worked as a rigger-erector from 1975 to 1982.
In supporting affidavits, five workers from Thistle Alpha, including men who were in supervisory positions, claim that during Mr Jarvis's time safety precautions during radiography operations hardly existed. Routinely, it is claimed, rig workers would work within 20 or 30 feet of highly toxic radioactive isotopes.
During Mr Jarvis's period on Thistle Alpha, there were as many as 1,000 other workmen employed on the construction of the platform. Work was particularly intense between 1979 and 1982. There were two 12-hour shifts every day, and much weld testing was taking place.
The dangers of industrial radiography were highlighted this year when The Independent reported the deaths of two men who worked checking pipeline welds on land. One of them, William Neilson of East Kilbride in Scotland, was killed by the highest dose of radiation received by anyone in Britain.
However, the case of Mr Jarvis opens up for the first time the question of large-scale radiation exposure of workers in the confined space of an oil rig in the North Sea. Doctors are investigating a second case of cancer contracted by another worker on Thistle Alpha, who is still alive, and who has given a statement in support of Mrs Jarvis' case.
Thistle Alpha was owned by Burma Oil Co pipelines Ltd until 1976, and then BNOC (Thistle) Ltd, until 1982, and Britoil (Thistle) Ltd until 1988, when that company became the British Petroleum Exploration Operating Co Ltd. Mrs Jarvis is suing the present owners of the rig, Kvaerner Humberoak Limited, for exemplary damages.
A spokesman for the company said that it was aware of the legal action. "We are pretty sensitive about this," he said. "We do not want people to think that we do not care about the safety of staff.'' He added that Mr Jarvis had worked for the company before it was taken over by Kvaerner, and that that the company would be contending the action. "Obviously I am not going to admit liability while there are proceedings underway.''
Kvaerner said that no other claims had been received for alleged radiation poisoning among former employees, but there are concerns that others could be forthcoming, if this case which also highlights allegations of lax personnel safety on the rigs, is successful.
Mr Jarvis had been a merchant seaman and then a lorry-driver before taking work on Thistle Alpha in June 1975. The North Sea proved to be a lucrative opportunity. He earned around £600 per week, working one month on, and then having a fortnight off with his family in their south London home. As a rigger-erector, he helped erect steel pylons, fit pipes, and build new accommodation modules.
He was not involved in welding pipes together, nor in checking the weld later. This was done by specially trained radiographers who would use radioactive isotopes to take X-rays. The area in which they worked was cordoned off with tape.
But Mr Jarvis, who gave a detailed statement before he died, claimed that he was routinely exposed to this radiation, without realising the risk. Other riggers on the same platform have given statements to the same effect.
"My husband would not have worked on the rig if he had been told that he might be exposed to radiation," Mrs Jarvis said.
In 1987, Mr Jarvis was diagnosed as suffering from chronic myeloid leukaemia. Expert medical opinion has confirmed that a likely cause for this condition was exposure to gamma radiation. Doctors also confirm that if, as he maintained, he was exposed between 1979 and 1981, they would have expected the cancer to manifest itself around the time he fell ill.
Once Mr Jarvis had cancer he was no longer able to work.His widow, who has brought up five children, does not work and now lives on a state pension of £53. "From living a life of luxury, we plummetted to living on the breadline,'' said Mrs Jarvis. "It was no way for a man to die."
Radiation is still used to check the integrity of welds on oil rigs, but today safety precautions are rigorous. All rig workers in the vicinity of weld-testing are told to stop work so that none may, accidentally, be exposed.
This does not, however, appear to have been the case during the 1970s and early 1980s, and it seems that radiographers were not the only men on oil rigs to be exposed to the radioactive sources. Former workers on the Thistle Alpha rig, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, have claimed that riggers often strayed close to the radiation sources.
Once metalwork had been welded, specialist teams of radiographers would come on to the rig to inspect it. The joints were wrapped in a ceramic blanket before they were "bombed'' with a radioactive isotope which tested their integrity. The isotope - Iridium 192 - was stored in a protective lead-lined box.
Before the radiographers started "bombing'', it was mandatory that an announcement was given over the Tannoy to alert other workers. The area also had to be marked off with red and white tape or rope. Frequently however the Tannoy messages were not heardabove other construction noise on the rig, and the tape quickly fractured.
"The men referred to this red-and-white plastic tape as magic tape as it was jokingly thought that this would stop the radiation from going beyond this point,'' said one former safety officer on Thistle Alpha. "It is possible that John Jarvis and other workmen could have come as close to 20 or 30 feet from the bombing.''
The officer alleges that workmen were not lectured on the dangers of radiation. In one case a workman found himself within the cordon because he had been wearing headphones and could not hear the Tannoy announcement. Another senior rig worker on the Thistle Alpha platform stated: "Bombing might be taking place in one module while other workmen were working in an adjoining module . . . the only physical barrier would have been the thickness of the dividing wall . . . The construction employees had to do what they were told by the management and the foreman. If they raised a hint of objection then the employees could be dismissed.''
"There was no induction course There were no lectures from the safety officer as to the dangers of radiation.''Reuse content