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New guidelines to give North Sea safety reps purpose and direction

New guidelines were unveiled yesterday to reinvigorate and protect the critical role of offshore elected safety representatives (ESRs).

North Sea safety chiefs said ESRs played a vital role in preventing accidents, but are sometimes left feeling isolated and afraid to report issues for fear of reprisal.

They also said ESRs’ skills and knowledge would “add value” to companies’ operations, but that too many businesses are failing to capitalise.

Aberdeen-based, member-led body Step Change in Safety published three new guides 30 years on from the introduction of key legislation relating to ESRs.

The SI971 regulations came into force on September 18, 1989, in the aftermath of the Piper Alpha disaster of the previous year.

They give workers the right to elect safety reps from among their numbers to ensure the entire workforce is formally involved in promoting health and safety.

But trade union bosses have warned the legislation is not being respected by oil and gas companies, accusing them of treating ESRs unfairly for carrying out their duties.

The new guides should address some of those concerns by improving engagement with ESRs and providing clear expectations around the role.

And it is hoped the documents will provide ESRs with a sense of purpose, direction and motivation.

One of the guides explains the functions and powers of ESRs, a second provides guidance for offshore installation managers, and the third targets onshore departments.

Step Change executive director Steve Rae acknowledged that the three-decades-old SI971 regulations had been “maligned, criticised and perceived as being ineffective”.

Mr Rae, a Piper Alpha survivor, also said undermining the role and making reps feel victimised was “unacceptable”.

Speaking to 350 people at Step Change’s event at P&J Live, he said the “untapped potential” of the ESR community had to be recognised.

Only a small percentage of issues were known to senior management, whereas the frontline workforce has far better awareness, he said.

Ensuring workers’ knowledge is transmitted ashore to influence investment decisions would be highly beneficial, Mr Rae said, adding: “A lot of value can be achieved by connecting workforce through safety reps”.

Bob Egan, head of workforce engagement at the UK Health and Safety Executive, said the organisation had received four complaints this year about ESRs feeling discriminated against.

He said ESRs should not be assessed on their safety rep functions during their end of year appraisals with employers – a point also made in the new guidelines.

Mr Egan also said he wants to ESRs to get more involved in offshore inspections.

Allan Smillie, HSE operational advisor at Taqa, said he knew the role could be a “struggle” and that there were times when ESRs could be “vulnerable” to blacklisting – known colloquially as NRBd (not required back).

But Mr Smillie said the guidelines would help protect ESRs from unfair treatment.

He wants ESRs to get away from thinking they cannot go beyond SI971, saying the regulations are “not there to limit what you can do”.

Steph Sunley, an ESR employed by Spirit Energy, said she had witnessed big improvements in efforts by management across the industry to engage and involve ESRs.

Stuart Mann, also an ESR, said companies were starting to factor in more time to allow ESRs to fulfil their duties more effectively, but that there are still a lot of “backward” employers.

Mr Mann agreed ESRs were “not being used to their best effect”, but said there was “light at the end of the tunnel”.

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