Out-Law News 2 min. read

Restructured HSE must maintain offshore regulation expertise, says expert

Internal changes at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) must not be allowed to detract from the regulator's expertise in health and safety at offshore oil and gas facilities, an expert has said.

Industry and unions have criticised the changes, which will see the regulator's dedicated Offshore Safety Division (OSD) disbanded. The work previously done by the OSD will be assigned to a new Energy Division, to be responsible for regulation of the energy sector as a whole.

Health and safety expert Anna Austin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that a "robust" health and safety regime was of "paramount importance" to the UK's offshore industry.

"For years, businesses in the industry have greatly benefitted from liaising with HSE personnel who have specialist offshore experience," she said.

"The challenge that faces the proposed Energy Division is to maintain the same level of expertise in its regulation of offshore activity, whilst raising the bar in terms of its regulation of the energy sector as a whole, both onshore and offshore. It remains to be seen whether this can be done," she said.

The OSD is responsible for regulating the health and safety risks of work in the offshore oil and gas industry on the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS). It was set up in line with the recommendations of Lord Cullen, as part of his report into the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster. Regulatory responsibility for the offshore industry was transferred to the HSE from the then Department of Energy following the explosion at the North Sea oil platform, which led to 167 deaths.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, said that the proposals "flew in the face" of Lord Cullen's recommendations.

"We fail to see how these changes will improve the efficiency of the regulator in a sector where new technologies are being developed and where there is significant investment forecast for the next decade and more," he said.

"In a goal-setting industry where the objective is 'continuous improvement' there has to be a robust regulatory regime and a regulator able to apply strong influence in achieving that objective. Diluting that effort by stretching an already under-resourced department cannot hope to deliver the aims of Lord Cullen all those years ago," he said.

However, the HSE has insisted that it remains "committed to strengthening" offshore regulation. In an open letter published on the regulator's website, its deputy chief executive Kevin Myers said that regulation would "remain business as usual from an external point of view". In addition, the HSE was currently recruiting more offshore inspectors and paying increased salaries to attract more recruits from the industry, he said.

"Staff working on offshore safety will comprise over 75 per cent of staff in the Energy Division and, far from diluting our offshore expertise, we are reorganising so that we can supplement it with expertise from other major hazard sectors," he said. "Our ability to do this was one of the reasons why regulation of offshore safety was transferred from the then Department of Energy 25 years ago. The change also enables us to more effectively regulate emerging energy technologies such as underground coal gasification and carbon capture and storage."

"We're all agreed on the need for a robust regulatory regime offshore – we owe it to those who have lost their lives in the industry and to those who still work there ... The practical steps we are taking to strengthen our offshore resources is a clear practical sign that we are staying true to our purpose of helping to make the North Sea a safer place to work," he said.

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