Five years later, they are still in peril on the sea: The writer is professor in the Department of Social and Economic Research at the University of Glasgow.

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THE PIPER Alpha oil rig blew up five years ago yesterday, resulting in 167 deaths. It was the world's worst offshore disaster. In the aftermath, the Government appointed a prominent Scottish High Court judge, Lord Cullen, to conduct a public inquiry into its causes and what could be done to prevent a recurrence. His two-volume report, published in November 1990, has been a turning point for the offshore industry, which had been run by the oil majors virtually on their own terms.

Since Piper Alpha there has been a complete rethink about how operators should conduct the management of safety on offshore oil rigs. Occidental, the operator of Piper Alpha, was criticised for its 'superficial' attitude to the risks arising from major hazards. Cullen also exposed the gross deficiencies in procedures for organising work on the rig, especially in the so-called 'permit-to-work' system that was meant to ensure central control of potentially hazardous operations - despite a previous fatality on Piper and subsequent prosecution. Yet the failure of this system was a major factor in the disaster.

But this was only one element in a subsequent catalogue of failures, which related both to the design of the rig, the supposed means of coping with emergencies and evacuation, and to the leadership responsibilities of Occidental's personnel.

There were failures, too, in the monitoring and inspection procedures of the Department of Energy (DEn), whose job it was to regulate the offshore industry. For years, critics had pointed out the difficulty in making the same department responsible both for ensuring the rapid recovery of hydrocarbons and for safety and welfare. This ran contrary to the whole spirit of the Robens report in the early Seventies, which provided the basis of the thinking behind the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) 1974.

The DEn had adopted a legislative approach which, said Cullen, held back the development of offshore safety by 'many years'. It had failed to move beyond the narrowly prescriptive regulations passed under the Mineral Workings Act 1971 to the more broadly based goal-setting kind of regulation envisaged by Robens and endorsed in the HSWA. Although the HSWA had been formally extended offshore in 1977, its administration was placed in the hands of the DEn under an 'agency agreement' with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Moreover, crucial regulations under the HSWA were never applied offshore. Onshore, the regulations provided for direct trade union participation in health and safety through the appointment and accrediting of union safety representatives.

An earlier review of offshore safety in 1980 strengthened the role of the DEn, while the operating companies were left to put in place a voluntary system of safety committees. These proved either non-existent or, where they did exist, largely ineffectual and wholly dominated by an agenda set by management. Workers who raised safety issues were often subject to victimisation - the infamous NRB (not required back) designation. In the deeply hostile climate towards organised trade unionism in the offshore oil industry, employers fiercely resisted either union participation in safety, or indeed the imposition of any system of mandatory safety committees. Workforce involvement was not part of the vocabulary of an industry whose management relied on fear, intimidation and apathy as the principal means of controlling the labour force.

In the second volume of his report, Lord Cullen's concern was to make recommendations about the regime to replace that which had so obviously failed. Cullen endorsed Formal Safety Assessment, embodied in the Safety Case approach, in which hazards on specific installations, from the initial phases to final platform decommissioning, were identified and assessed.

In recommending the Safety Case approach, Cullen was simply dragging a reluctant industry by the scruff of its neck into the era of modern safety management. Every installation in the UK Continental shelf now must prepare its own Safety Case for 'acceptance' by 1995. The regulatory body evaluating these is the new Offshore Safety Division of the Health and Safety Executive, to which Cullen recommended responsibility should be transferred from the DEn.

It is too soon to pass judgement on the HSE as a regulator. Certainly the Offshore Safety Division has received the level of funding and is making statements suggesting that it means to take its role seriously. It is to be hoped that it will be less compliant towards the industry than its predecessor. Yet almost before the ink was dry on the Cullen report, the operators had begun to challenge key recommendations, in particular the requirement to establish temporary safe refuges on every installation. The cost of this, it is estimated, could amount to pounds 1.5bn. There will be continuing pressure on the HSE, in a time of tight profit margins, to be flexible.

On the issue of 'workforce involvement' in safety, which Cullen enthusiastically advocated, the operators are prepared to contemplate its only on terms that they themselves set. Cullen chose not to comment on the vexed question of offshore industrial relations. The trade unions have argued consistently that the issues of safety and industrial relations cannot be separated, that safety representatives must have the back-up and confidence given by trade unions in order to present an effective countervailing force to management.

The employers have argued that the unions are exploiting public concern over safety in the industry to pursue a hidden agenda, which is trade union power. It is questionable how much genuine worker involvement there has been in the preparation of the Safety Cases. The skills and technical language that would permit effective 'auditing from below' by trade unions have not been made available.

The non-union safety committees offshore that were elected from the general workforce and hastily put in place after Piper are currently subject to review. It now seems unlikely that the trade unions will succeed in exporting the onshore model offshore at a time when the union role in health and safety is under general attack.

Although there appears to be some support for the active involvement of trade unions in safety among the offshore workforce, it is by no means universal, perhaps a reflection of the weakness of offshore trade unionism; only 30 per cent of the workforce is unionised. This is in part a reflection of the difficulties that unions have faced in achieving recognition and, therefore, in being seen as relevant to the workforce. Two 'summers of discontent' in 1989 and 1990 failed to secure union recognition and resulted in mass sackings of hundreds of contract workers.

But it alsoreflects the failure of the unions to meet the challenge Cullen posed for them, by pooling their limited memberships in an effective offshore confederation. That failure, which led oil workers to form their own industrial union, OILC, has introduced further divisions into offshore unionism.

On the more positive side, there is enhanced legal protection against victimisation for safety representatives, although a determined employer will always find a way to remove a persistent critic. Victimisation is difficult to prove. As long as the workforce remains without power, the creation of an organic 'safety culture' with genuine workforce involvement will prove impossible.

Since Piper Alpha, pounds 1bn has been spent on safety in the industry. But while hardware systems may have been improved, the human and industrial relations side of the industry still gives cause for concern. There is a legacy of guilt, and indeed bitterness, among the workforce since Piper Alpha that will linger for some time.

Occidental was able to disengage from the North Sea without facing prosecution. Now the company is preparing to reopen old wounds in an attempt to recoup through the courts the money paid in compensation to relatives of the victims. This is a measure of the confidence, indeed arrogance, of the oil transnationals who have ruled their North Sea fiefdom with almost total impunity.

On the other hand, a number of operators, particularly in the drilling and exploration sector, have been successfully brought to book for breaches of health and safety legislation. Within weeks of Piper Alpha, the Ocean Odyssey rig blew up, miraculously with the loss of only one life. The findings of the longest fatal accident inquiry in Scottish legal history were contemptuously rejected by the rig's operators. Now, for the first time in the entire North Sea saga, they are to be taken before the High Court on criminal charges, with the possibility of unlimited fines. For an industry ruled by the bottom line, many will be watching the outcome with interest, not least the workforce.