More than one-third of North Sea workers are too large to safely fit in typical lifeboats on UK oil and gas installations, new figures show.
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data obtained via a freedom of information request by Energy Voice, sister website to The Press and Journal, shows an estimated 36% are heavier than the 15-stone 10lb maximum load per person.
Meanwhile, an estimated 5% are above 19st 10lb.
And weight is just part of the problem as a growing number of taller workers are also unable to secure themselves inside lifeboats or occupy certain seats in an emergency.
Workers weight issue a source of ‘angst’ for health and safety professionals
The offshore industry previously assumed the average weight was below the threshold.
But emails sent to inspectors in recent weeks have revealed the new data showing many workers are now too big.
Correspondence between HSE and trade body Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) outlined the “angst” of safety experts over the issue, with one questioning “whether this can be managed”.
Operators must take full account of the average weight of people working on their installations, and make sure their life-saving kit, including lifeboats, is suitable.
Industry experts have pointed to a wider societal issue of people becoming bigger.
However, North Sea operators are legally bound to ensure – as far as reasonably practicable – that “all persons” can be safely evacuated in an emergency.
HSE has uncovered cases of dutyholders “ignoring” manufacturers’ maximum loads and failing to demonstrate safe evacuation procedures.
The watchdog said the figures mean lifeboats and winches risk being overloaded due to the combined weight, with knock-on issues around training and whether injured workers on stretchers can be loaded in. It also affects other life-saving appliances like life rafts and immersion suits.
114 out of 120 harnesses ‘too small’
A recent inspection on one platform found 114 out of 120 lifeboat harnesses were “too small to fit the girth of crew members”.
OEUK has issued guidance to industry, now under review, to tackle the issue.
But there is nothing to stop larger workers with valid medical certificates going offshore.
HSE has said it “will be looking for assurances”, following a short grace period, the problem is being effectively managed and that lifeboats are fit for purpose
Letters seen by Energy Voice show issues from inspections on Ithaca Energy, Taqa and Apache platforms, since rectified.
HSE first raised the problem in 2008 and has taken enforcement action, with operators having taken steps including reducing lifeboat capacities.
It was previously estimated – using Civil Aviation Authority data – the average weight per worker offshore was 15st 6lb for men and 12st 2lb for women.
Industry seeking ‘medium-term and long-term solutions’
OEUK health and safety manager Graham Skinner said the trade body was taking “a rigorous approach to this complex issue and seeking out immediate, medium-term and long-term solutions”.
He added: “Challenges related to the size and shape of offshore workers have been a consideration for more than 15 years.
“This issue is not oil and gas specific, but related to changes in workforce demographics and seen generally across the population.
“As a result of observations raised by industry and the safety regulator, OEUK conducted a review of offshore weights and then coordinated an exercise to consider all the implications related to the size and shape of offshore workers.”
Some people are just too heavy to work offshore.”
Steven Harris, Integrity HSE
An HSE spokesperson said: “This is an ongoing issue of concern. The average size and weight of the offshore workforce has continued to grow.
“Offshore duty-holders have a legal duty for the safety of their workers.
“This includes taking adequate account of the current average weight and size of people when determining the suitability of evacuation and escape systems.”
The spokesperson added: “We’re actively supporting the industry to address the issues.
“OEUK have drafted industry guidance, which is currently out for consultation, which we will continue to monitor.”
MP: ‘Safety must be absolutely paramount’
Aberdeen South SNP MP Stephen Flynn said: “Our offshore workforce perform some of the most dangerous jobs in the world and safety must be absolutely paramount.
“I trust that both industry and the Health and Safety Executive will take this matter very seriously and take whatever measures are necessary to keep our workers in the North Sea safe.”
An RMT union spokesperson said: “All offshore workers have to pass strenuous medical checks in order to perform their duties.
“If there are concerns about offshore workers’ health, in relation to the use of any equipment, then employers have a duty of care to ensure modifications… are made that keeps everybody safe.”
Steven Harris, managing director of health and safety-focused Integrity HSE, of Aberdeen, said the problem was likely part of a wider societal issue.
Mr Harris added: “Logic would suggest this is an oversight and not a surprise to duty-holders. How can it be anything else when every person that flies to and from their installation is weighed?
“This is likely to be symptomatic of a wider societal health issue. To address it, responsible duty-holders must create an offshore workplace where the healthy option is the default, and not the exception. That is not currently the case on most installations”.
Regulators will need to take action if operators don’t get a handle on the issue. Mr Harris said, adding: “I would expect our trade bodies to issue guidance that helps the industry to comply.
“This process may involve some uncomfortable truths because being big is not a protected characteristic under UK law.
“It may well be the case that some people are just too heavy to work offshore”.