Back at the beginning of last year various magazines and periodicals were having one of their occasional goes at highlighting safety or accidents or investigations, or whatever.

For instance the January 2016 Nautilus Telegraph had an article about a report published by the European Maritime Safety Agency. The report presented all sorts of statistics in a variety of ways, but the Telegraph  chose to present the information relating to the types of ship and the reasons for the accidents. So the report stated the following - that 67% of the accidents were attributed to human erroneous action – or as we might put it “human error”.

Also this month Dr Nippin Anand had written wise words (again) in Seaways, the Nautical Institute magazine about what it means to be a ship captain. He suggested that investigators focused on aspects of accidents closest to the event, and did not take into account less immediate features. Typically he said that a major contributing factor might be substandard design in a ship built thirty years before, or fatigue due to inappropriate travel arrangements being made for the crew member involved.  He also said that major accidents offer tremendious potential for learning from failures, but the opportunity is easily lost if human falability is viewed as the cause.

I am minded to quote from my own book “A Catalogue of Disasters” (You’ll have to put up with a bit of advertising dear reader!) about the Samudra Suraksha accident in 2005, when the helideck of the ship contacted a gas riser on the Mumbai North Platform and the resulting conflagration caused the loss of the platform, the loss of the ship and the deaths of 22 people.

The captain was at the controls, the weather was bad and he was there because the cook had cut of the ends of two of his fingers, and the platform had agreed to take him on board for medical attention. Pretty straightforward then we might think – just a case of bad driving.

But now I’m going to list what might be considered to be contributing factors. Firstly the weather was not very good, so should he have been attempting the job at all. Due to the wind the helicopter kept in the field was shut down, preventing the use of the ship’s helideck. Also contributing to the accident was the fact that the ship’s thrusters were not working properly which had resulted in the captain having to do the job manually, rather than having the DP do it, which would have allowed him to gradually step in to the correct position. This was particularly important because the only available crane was on the windward side, and actually other installations which might have had a crane on the lee side had refused his requests for help.

So up to now it seems that mostly it was the captain’s job to assess the situation and decide whether the poor cook should be taken up on the platform, although it would seem to be doubtful that they could have sown his finger ends back on. Should he have take some medical advice and sorted the problem out himself? But no, he chose to go to it and get help for the cook, so in the very least the man would no longer be whingeing in his ear.

The transfer took place but before the ship could move away the helideck contacted one of a  number of gas risers running up the side of the platform. And bang - both the platform and the ship were alight. And within a couple of hours the platform was a smoking stub sticking put of the water.

So let’s rewind a bit. None of this would have happened if the gas risers had been located inside the platform structure. And for those who work outside the oil industry, the risers are pipes transporting the hydrocarbon product from the well, or wells, to the processing area on the platform. And you people from outside the industry will be asking why anyone ever thought about putting these very important pipes in such an exposed position. Good question, and the answer is - because it is easier.

So I think we have pretty well muddied the waters when it comes to who was responsible for the devastating loss of the MHN platform. And if anything it appears to have been the designer of the platform or the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India, rather than the captain of the ship, who was at fault. There have been suggestions that the OIM of the platform should have refused the ship access, and there is some validity to this approach. It is virtually certain that the captain had no idea that the pipes running down the side of the platform jacket were full of gas, and that there was a good chance that if he touched them with the helideck the platform would burn down, the ship would catch fire and in the end sink outside the 500 metre zone. And finally we might ask what training the captain had received in the manual manoeuvring of his ship. Doubtless he was the proud holder of a DP Certificate enabling him to operate all the buttons and switches on the ship’s DP console, but again people who are not in the business might be surprised to learn that you don’t even have to be any sort seafarer to gain such a certificate, and it does not involve shiphandling training. So – none then!

After the disaster various people made presentations including the then Operations Manager of the HSE Offshore Safety Division to the members of the Marine Safety Forum. The theme of his presentation was that he hoped that there was no possibility of such a thing happening in the North Sea.

It does not seem that anyone responded to this hope by telling him that a number of platforms in the UK sector of the North Sea provided a similar opportunity for accidents. So have a look at the Thistle Platform now operated by Enquest, before that by BP and before that BNOC (The British National Oil Company). Back in the day it was normal practice for ships to tie up at the platforms at which they worked, and while the semi-submersible Belford Dolphin was alongside Thistle, the ships supplying the structure used to tie up to it. Then the rig was taken away, but no ropes were ever installed on the platform so the ship drivers had to hover about under the crane as best they could. This activity was known at the time as “snatching” because, in general, ships were unable to maintain station under the crane without ropes, and so as they passed slowly by the crane hook would be lowered away and hooked on to a lift…and hopefully lifted off the deck before the ship got too far away. Should the crane driver not act quickly enough then he would keep on letting the wire out, and then towards the end he would get out of the cab and run away. Meanwhile the man at the controls of the ship would be desperately trying to get back within range of the crane.

Over time the ship masters learnt how to maintain station and the crane drivers learnt how to get the hook down there quickly and the deck crew learnt how to hook the lift on without becoming entangled in the wires. But who taught then to do this? And who would teach them today?

Meanwhile it seems that the big pipe running up the side of the jacket underneath the easterly crane was a marine riser, through which large quantities of oil were making their way to deck level for processing and onward transmission to the shore. So if this riser had been punctured by a ship whose fault would it have been? If this riser is still there today, after all these years, and if it was squashed by a ship which got out of control, whose fault would it be?

Let’s move on to the 2013 “Guidelines for Offshore Operations” which you may remember replaced the Northwest European Guidelines, To be honest it reads like a list of instructions to prevent people doing things which have caused problems in the past. And when we get to Section 7.2 Vessel Operational Capability, the master is required to assess the risks involved in the proposed activities and to take into account a number of possibilities. One is the maintenance of station on the weather side of an installation, and another is “the requirement for vessel to maintain station adjacent to assets containing hydrocarbons which have no or minimal protection!!” (My exclamation marks).

It seems possible that we had recently decided that if these pipes were still stapled to the outside of jackets in way of ship operations, it would be the fault of the designers if it all went wrong – but this risk assessment process has made it the master’s fault again. And just in case we were relying on the DP system to keep us out of trouble, another requirement is “that the master should assess the competency of the OOW to manoeuvre the vessel manually in the prevailing circumstances should this become necessary”.

In addition to the riser Thistle was pinned to the seabed by a number of piles and above the surface were the steel rings on each of the four corner legs, to guide the piles downwards. At some time early on, the outer half of these rings were cut off, so that the corners of the platform bristled like a porcupine, each point capable of slicing into the sides of any vessel which got too close. This happened at least once, but fortunately the ship did not sink.

So after this, we can say that an accident similar to that which occurred to the Bombay High won’t occur as long as…and here I was going to write  “the features already described have been removed from the platform,” but as it turns out we should be writing “as long as suitable and sufficient risk assessment has been carried out”. This sounds like a joke, and lamentably it is. We could do the risk assessment now. We could get plans of all the platforms in the UKCS, determine whether there were any risers within the possible range of attendant vessels, and then write instructions about the weather conditions and wind directions which would prevent close quarters operations taking place. We could then put them on a database and issue it to the vessels working to platforms in the UK sector. But no-one wants to do that, because they would have put in place an instruction which would prevent cargo operations taking place under certain circumstances. And there, by the way, is a root cause.

At this point it may be worth saying that the oil industry in UK is streets ahead of the merchant service, not because they want to be, but because the HSE has its boot on their necks. And the constant emphasis on “Safety” has in some ways distracted people from actually doing the work, which may not be a good thing. It is possible that this may not be true of other offshore areas of the world, here I am adding a table I have been saving for some time, which is worth close study. I would particularly draw your attention to the fires and explosions in the Gulf of Mexico – there have been over 100 in each year since 2008, and the 51 in 2015 was ytd. So here we have to ask, what was learnt from these incidents – if anything.

We could take a step back from accidents and have a look at “near misses” or a some in the oil industry call them “near hits”. Every time a ship goes under the east crane at Thistle, if the riser is still there, they should log a near miss. And if you don’t think that’s fair let’s look at an infrastructure problem out in…Saudi Arabia, where your scribe worked for three months a bit more than 20 years ago. One of the oilfields is in extremely shallow water, and back then I was captain of a ship which was considered to be suitable for operation in these water depths,  so we were paired up with a rig also suitable for shallow water. Getting to and from the field could either be a six hour trip round the field, or a two hour trip close to the coast, depending on the state of the tide. If we were out at the rig we could tell if it was going to be deep enough for the short trip if the seawater was at the level of the top rail around the access to the spud cans (it was that shallow), but was not deep enough if the water was at the level of the middle rail, a difference then of about two feet (60 centimetres). And the shallowest point on the route? The pipeline between the field and the shore, we would lean over the side to check that we were passing clear of it. Every trip was a near miss. But we don’t like to log near misses because it would seem that we are constantly at risk. But that’s it really. We are constantly at risk, and it might be worth every shipmaster’s time just to keep their own record of what they consider to be near misses. And at the end of the trip, just count them up and be distressed, nobody else has to know.

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