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Eyeing BP oil spill, British question if North Sea oil firms also push bounds of safety

The BP oil spill has drawn attention to companies' safety records in the North Sea, where an oil rig explosion killed 167 men three decades ago. A coauthor of a report on that catastrophe says that practices have changed little since then.

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Working on tight margins in the North Sea, which is less lucrative than the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies have come to rely heavily on subcontractors. They pay bonuses to subcontractors that demonstrate a low rate of accidents and injuries. But Professor Beck says that such bonuses have become an incentive for subcontractors to hide safety problems.

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“The real main issue is under-reporting of accidents and safety issues,” he says. “Conditions in the North Sea are very rough, the natural hazards are much greater than in the Gulf of Mexico and the oil is also expensive, so in a sense it’s one of the less profitable oil provinces.”

Jake Molloy, a trade union representative for oil industry workers, says that “real improvements” in safety culture have been made over recent decades. But he expresses concern about the role played by safety performance related bonuses on drilling operations.

“Just on Wednesday, a lad suffered a serious injury when a piece of equipment hit him in the face and had to go onshore for medical treatment,” he says. “The company then asked him if, on completion of the treatment, he would come into the office – the objective being to disguise the lost time from injury being recorded and ensure that the performance-related bonus was paid.”

BP performed better than Maersk on safety

Over the past five years, British health and safety watchdogs have taken legal action against oil giants including BP, Shell, Total, Chevron, and Maersk, forcing them to fix flaws in their crucial safety and maintenance systems.

The latest reprimand of BP, in 2009, said the multinational had “failed to ensure the safety” of its own employees and others during a mooring operation involving a tanker. The company met a deadline this year to address the technical problem.

BP, which says it has a good overall health and safety record in the North Sea, has received six such warnings since 2007, in contrast with the 24 issued to the Danish conglomerate Maersk. Subcontractor underreporting may be hiding further safety issues, however.

Britain pushes ahead with drilling, despite environmental concerns

Aside from worker safety, wider environmental worries in the North Sea have also come under the spotlight in the wake of Deepwater Horizon's disaster.

Britain’s North Sea neighbor, Norway, this week said it had sufficient concerns to halt all new drilling until a full inquiry is conducted into the cause of BP’s leak.

By comparison, Britain's new coalition government ruled out "for the moment” a moratorium on deep-water exploration – exploration that is part of broader plans to open up new areas of the North Sea for drilling. It did, however, order a doubling of inspections of North Sea drilling rigs.

BP was targeted in two of 10 investigations launched last year following environmental concerns voiced by government inspectors, both of which involved BP subcontractor Transocean.

The British government department behind the inspections says that despite the concern, no actual environmental damage was detected as a result of any of the incidents that have sparked 32 investigations since the beginning of 2007.