Special path to safer working

The offshore sector is one of the safest places to work in Norway today. But that has not always been the case, and history shows just how bad things can be when they first go wrong.

| Astri Sivertsen

Photo: NTB Scanpix/Aftenposten

Accident which appalled Norway.
Only the four remaining pontoons on Alexander L Kielland were visible after it turned turtle on 27 March 1980.
(Photo: NTB Scanpix/Aftenposten)


It may be a bit excessive to claim that explaining Norway’s offshore safety regime to foreigners is always a problem, says Preben Hempel Lindøe. But this presents at least a challenge.

“People who’re used to a more traditional form of regulation find it difficult to grasp how our system functions,” says the professor emeritus of risk management and societal safety at the University of Stavanger.

A few years ago, he was involved in the launch of an international book project on managing risk in the oil and gas industry.

An American colleague was unable to understand how such a tough sector could be regulated through framework regulations which place responsibility for safety on the companies themselves.

But two days in a Stavanger hotel, meeting unions, the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association and the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway (PSA) gave him the answer.

“This is a small world where people know each other, and there’s a level of trust in the systems which has been built up over a long time,” Lindøe notes.

Preben H Lindøe

< Not an individual responsibility.
Preben H Lindøe holds the bannister to please the photographer.
(Photo: Arne Bjørøen)



This “tripartite” trust between unions, employers and government was forged in the Second World War, explains the professor, who wrote his PhD on internal control in land-based enterprises.

When Norway was being rebuilt after the German occupation of 1940-45, people in key positions knew and trusted each other from the resistance movement.

Tripartite collaboration was the cornerstone of the Working Environment Act passed in 1977, which Lindøe says encountered much resistance when it came to be extended to the NCS.

“This produced an exacting confrontation between American and Norwegian work cultures, and set its stamp on many of the labour conflicts which occurred in the early years.”


Crew on anchorhandler REM Gambler working to release Bredford Dolphin.

Big forces.
Crew on anchorhandler REM Gambler working to release Bredford Dolphin.
(Photo: NTB Scanpix/Samfoto)


During the pioneer years from the mid-1960s, historians have found that the risk of a fatal accident offshore was eight times greater than in the rest of Norwegian industry.

People were killed in falls or crushed by dropped objects. They died in helicopter crashes or suffocated from lack of breathing gas when diving in deep water.

A total of 82 workers lost their lives between 1965 and 1978, more than half of them during the development of the Ekofisk field from 1971 to 1977.

All that happened before the great disaster of 27 March 1980, when the Alexander L Kielland accommodation rig (flotel) turned turtle in the North Sea.

Killing 123 people, this accident horrified government and public opinion alike and was crucial to the development of Norway’s safety regulations and organisation.

Three decades after Alexander L Kielland, in April 2010, the biggest offshore disaster of modern times occurred with the Deepwater Horizon rig in the US Gulf of Mexico. A blowout in a well on the Macondo field caused this unit to catch fire and sink, with the death of 11 people and an oil leak which lasted 87 days before it was finally plugged.

Paradoxically, the crew of the rig had been celebrating a long period of injury-free operation on the day that the blowout happened.

Lindøe explains that the safety system in the USA was such that inspectors could arrive unannounced by helicopter on a facility, bearing long checklists.

“But the question is what such lists actual reveal,” he observes. “They give you no insight into the organisation and how the system is built up. You get white spaces on the map, particularly at the interface between different operators.”

This is where the NPD initially and later the PSA have led the way by investigating the connections between technology and organisation.

They have also challenged the industry to discuss safety issues openly, Lindøe notes. “Not necessarily in public, but through dialogue meetings and technical seminars. That’s a very different approach.”

The PSA checks that safety systems in the companies are consistent, and that all decisions can be traced. That cannot be done simply with checklists, since everything usually looks fine on the surface.


Mexican Gulf disaster.

Mexican Gulf disaster.
Deepwater Horizon in flames.
(Photo: NTB Scanpix/AP Photo)


Rather than prescribing in detail what equipment is required and how work should be done, the Norwegian regulations are performance-based (or functional).

In other words, they specify safety targets or functions and leave it to the companies to establish management systems which meet them – with great freedom to choose appropriate solutions.

When the government prescribes a rule, Lindøe explains, it will also be responsible for the consequences if this is not implemented.

Requiring the companies to set their own standards means the responsibility rests with them. That is the nub of the Norwegian regime, which may not be so easy for outsiders to understand.

“Our system calls for expertise and self-awareness, and in that respects makes big demands on the enterprises,” the professor notes.

It has transpired that many small foreign companies can feel uncertain and often want to see clearer rules, he says. This is one reason for the growing use of consultants offshore.

The trust-based internal control system also calls for a high level of expertise at the regulator if the industry is to have confidence in its decisions.

That is a big problem in a number of other countries, says Lindøe. Official regulators there are unable to recruit staff with sufficient ability because the work has low status.

Financial pressures have also led to a dramatic scaling back of regulation in many countries, while the Norwegian government has been willing to maintain the number of regulatory personnel.

He adds that Norway’s regulations have largely been framed by engineers and people with practical experience. “Whether you’re a well specialist in Statoil or the PSA, you know what you’re talking about. You speak the same language, and try to find sensible solutions.”


The Norwegian system may be based on trust and openness, but that does not exclude conflicts between the various sides. This emerged, for example from the NPD’s 2000 annual report.


Escape chute.
< Escape chute.
An important part onflicts between of offshore evacuation equipment.
(Photo: NTB Scanpix/Samfoto)


It contained a sharp warning that the previously positive trend in the level of petroleum-industry risk appeared to have reversed. The NPD said it could not accept that this manifested itself in the form of a larger number of serious accidents.

“Developments had moved in a negative direction for several years, and the time had come to speak out,” says Magne Ognedal, who joined the NPD in 1974 and became its safety director in 1980.

He subsequently headed the PSA after it had been separated from the NPD in 2004 until his retirement in 2013, and has made a stronger mark on the NCS safety regime than any other individual.

Good progress was achieved after a regulatory reform in 1985, he recalls. Before then, the NPD had been merely one agency among many with a formal responsibility for offshore safety.

In the wake of the serious accidents which were taking place, however, the directorate began to agitate for something to be done.

The NPD’s safety division reported at the time to the Ministry of Local Government and Labour, and Tormod Hermansen – its top civil servant – sparked a complete shake-up.

In addition to the introduction of Norway’s first Petroleum Act, the internal control principle applied by the NPD since the late 1970s was formalised in a royal decree.

The number of agencies involved on the safety side was whittled down to just three – the NPD, the predecessor of today’s Norwegian Environment Agency, and the Norwegian Board of Health.

According to Ognedal, this greatly simplified administration and follow-up of offshore safety. “The 1985 reform was crucial, and laid the basis for subsequent progress.”

By the late 1990s, however, the curves were starting to move in the wrong direction. The NPD was sharply critical of operator Norsk Hydro after a fatal accident on Oseberg East on Christmas Eve 2000, and trust between government and companies hung by a thread. Fresh action was needed.


Two innovations from this period have acquired great significance – the annual survey of trends in risk level in the petroleum activity (RNNP) and the Safety Forum.

Various indicators had long been used to measure the level of safety, but the RNNP report has been issued every year since the start of the new millennium by the NPD and later the PSA.

This overview draws on data from such sources as the operator companies, the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority and the helicopter operators.

Several research teams have been involved in developing the methodology, which Lindøe believes to be unique for Norway. Other nations lack such an integrated factual base.

The advantage of the RNNP is that it provides a shared understanding of reality which all the parties can agree on. That eliminates any war of words about the facts. The RNNP report accordingly also lays the basis for taking necessary action.

All sides of the industry have met regularly in the Safety Forum since 2001, regularising the less formalised meetings held earlier between government, employers and unions.

Ognedal highlights efforts to cut hydrocarbon leaks on the NCS, which can have very serious consequences for both people and the environment, as an example of the way the system works.

When the RNNP process revealed a very negative development for such incidents, the issue was raised in the forum. The trend had to be reversed, and the industry accepted responsibility.

“Norwegian Oil and Gas did a very good job in that connection,” Ognedal says. This work began with an extensive study of the reasons for these leaks.

That was followed by a number of measures to rectify the causes identified – right down to the level of teaching people to tighten flanges correctly.

Efforts were regularly reported back to and followed up in the forum. The result was a halving in hydrocarbon leaks from about 40 in 2000 to roughly 20 five years later.

Since then, the figure has been halved yet again and has lain in recent years at an annual total of roughly six-nine incidents.

According to Ognedal, tripartite collaboration and common arenas such as the Safety Forum have proved very important for reducing risk in the petroleum industry. And both reflect a model developed unilaterally by Norway on its own special terms.

“The roles played by the various oil-sector participants differ from other countries,” he says. “They lack the same basis. Unions here have a very different position than in the UK, for instance.”


Rope access technicians prepare to change lifeboats on Oseberg East

High up.
Rope access technicians prepare to change lifeboats on Oseberg East.
(Photo: NTB Scanpix/Samfoto)


Major accidents

Over the half-century Norway has been pursuing oil and gas operations, safety work has largely been directed at avoiding major accidents.

And that is natural enough, given the potentially disastrous consequences of a gas blowout or a design error for human life, the environment and society in general.

Lindøe points to research which has shown that such accidents usually have complex causes involving the interaction between humans, organisation and technology, and are generally the outcome of a chain of decisions at many levels.

That makes it meaningless to assign responsibility for safety to individuals working offshore, despite the trend a few years ago to focus on employee behaviour.

While Lindøe accepts this is important enough, he says that safety can never be individualised or reduced to a hunt for scapegoats when an accident occurs.

Preventing and limiting the scope of possible incidents calls for the incorporation of technical, operational and organisational barriers.

The industry must adopt the precautionary principle, with both companies and government working systematically to learn from accidents in order to improve systems continuously.

In Lindøe’s view, Norway’s petroleum industry has been a pioneer with new methods of thinking and practising safety. That has made it a model and a reference for other sectors in society.


Magne Ognedal

Magne Ognedal in front of the monument to the 123 people who died in the Alexander L Kielland disaster. This incident on 27 March 1980 horrified government and public opinion alike.
(Photo: NPD/Emile Ashley)


“Compared with other Norwegian industries, safety on the NCS is good,” he maintains. And the contrast with a business like fishing is striking.

By comparing deaths in 1990-2005, Lindøe established that – based on workyears – a fisherman is 12 times more likely to suffer a fatal accident than an offshore employee. That figure rises to 25 when helicopter accidents are excluded.

This reflects culture and history, the professor argues. Fishermen appreciate that they have a dangerous profession. Nor are they willing to accept an outside authority telling them how to do their job.

The number of accidents in Norwegian agriculture is also high, with safety in this sector usually regarded as the responsibility of the individual farmer and their family.

“Offshore safety is a national concern,” Lindøe comments. “We have historical examples that trust has been very fragile at times, and that major accidents have lurked just out of sight.

“Such incidents and their consequences are precisely the considerations which make it defensible to maintain such a high level of safety in the oil industry.”


Norwegian Continental Shelf no.2-2015

Main page - Contents
Bente Nyland on the NCS: Glass is half-full
The interview: Petroleum minister calls on companies to invest
Thinking outside the box made Maria’s development possible
Special report: 50 years
Safety carries a cost
Seeking to cut documentation
Eldar Myhre and son Aslak discuss what oil has done with Norway
NPD profile: Diskos database crucial for exploration success
Making huge volumes of offshore data available
Adding up to acclaim
Rockshot: Tight formations
Geology: Many benefits for society
www.norskpetroleum.no: Find facts about the NCS