I had the pleasure of working offshore on oil rigs in the North Sea off the East coast of Scotland for a period of ten years. There are in all likelihood numerous stories relating to occasions when men have lost their lives in pursuit of oil.
The stories mean very little until you become a part player in your own story. Only then does the human sacrifice bear any relation to the loss suffered.
600 helicopter flights later and with little to show but some good stories and valuable experience I sometimes find myself lamenting on occasions worth episodic thought.
Every health and safety professional will proclaim there to be no such thing as an accident in any industry but most especially in the liability obsessed nature of the oil business.
There are only incidents.
Health and safety is a booming worldwide concern and the oil industry has embraced its preachings more than any other.
This is not all bad but still I feel that health and safety applies when it suits the company profile or it accounts for another check in the obligatory box. Health and safety seems never to apply when there is something important on the horizon or there is an urgent requirement of some sort. So ensues a certain level of skepticism.
The oil rig in question was run by one of the more safety astute oil companies I had worked for but here too it was a case of ticking boxes that had more than likely been scripted from behind a desk in an office somewhere by people that had never had any experience of working in such an environment.
I had worked regularly on this particular rig over a period of three years and so knew well all of the personnel co-sharing that few hundred square meters of steel every few weeks.
The incident in question happened in the early morning of an unusually cold August offshore. My association with the rig meant I had the choice of whether I would work day-shift or night-shift. On this occasion I chose day-shift.
I will never forget being woken at 3am by a colleague quietly informing me that one of the roughnecks had been killed an hour earlier. On hearing the dead mans name all I could visualize was the Glasgow Rangers football scarf he traditionally wore around his neck prior to going on shift each day. I was later disappointed that the death of a man I'd known for three years could only stimulate a memory of an article of his clothing.
The obvious shock assured I was not likely to return to sleep so I climbed from the bunk, dressed and headed down to the large recreation room at the base of the rig. All of the night-shift personnel were there, mostly in silence, unable to venture outside as following the incident the rig had been virtually shut down.
The dead man suffered and his death was not instantaneous. The details horrified me then and continue to now. Each man on board wanted to be off that rig the very next day. Morale was low to say the least but the oil industry being what it is ensured that nobody was allowed to leave the rig and three days after the death of a close colleague we were back outside working and working in the exact spot where the man had died.
The death was attributed to human failing and the actions of one man who ordered a junior to perform a duty that was always going to end in tragedy given the workings and state of affairs on the drill floor at that time. Unfortunately everyone on the rig knew that the man giving the order was an accident waiting to happen given his penchant for screaming orders.
This man was later charged with manslaughter as it became apparent the failing of his responsibilities. I am sure that was of no solace to my dead colleagues' family.
This was a tragic 'incident' and one that would likely never be repeated. The events of that day had repercussions around the entire industry as these things normally do.
A single mans life may seem like a small price to pay for supplying a very high percentage of the worlds energy requirements but when you consider that over three hundred men lose their lives each year you can appreciate the extent of problem.
I feared for my life on only two occasions offshore and both of those times were weather related. The UK North Sea sector is bound by tight legislation and is infinitely safer than many other areas of the world but still deaths occur.
Can death be eliminated from the industry? Yes they can and hopefully will but only with the correct change in attitude. People need to slow down and be aware of their actions. People need to assure the workers at the sharp end of the oilfield that they will not lose their jobs if the operation takes a day longer than planned. Greed needs to make way for a modicum of caring.
Each man that dies has a wife waiting at home or a child waiting for a kiss goodnight or a mother plating up their meal and those incidentals are lost to statistics for the executives to read the morning after.
Oil is big business with big profit. What is required are big people who care about how we get it out of the hole.