Inspiration for the final and thirty third article in this series of ‘The Auditor’ was proving elusive whilst enjoying another train trip to Aberdeen in readiness for an offshore HSE Audit. However, a casual browse through a borrowed Sunday newspaper magazine revealed amazing images of a sinking oil platform off the coast of Brazil. Here was the inspiration for the final article in ‘The Auditor’ series.

The sheer scale of this disaster, which happened in 2001 with the loss of 11 lives was of the highest magnitude possible – the platform was the largest in the world at the time. The accompanying article, written by an award-winning journalist, wove an interesting mix of personal comments gleaned from various sources which included the wife of a petroleum engineer who died in the accident, an oil workers’ union representative and two injured subcontract workers. The overall article embraced the broader sustainability and ethical viewpoint, pointing a finger at the social and financial inequality caused by the mishandling of wealth generated by a rapidly expanding oil industry.

With particular reference to the disaster itself, the emotive nature of the article can be balanced by reading the official and verified report published in June 2001 by the Inquiry Commission of the P-36 accident, easily downloadable via the web. This document provides a summary of the findings which describes how a number of factors led to the explosion and sinking of the platform. The report states that a rupture of the starboard emergency drain storage tank took place due to accidental entry of hydrocarbons followed by an increase in pressure. Various other events combined which led to the two explosions and ultimately, the loss of the platform.

One interesting point for the HSE auditor is that the magazine article refers to comments made by the engineer to his wife prior to the accident – the unverifiable personal testament which pointed to some particular concerns raised about the safety of platform. One was that “one of the valves in the legs is not working”. Another comment was that “a tank that contained the run-off gases had been placed in the leg of the structure, a potentially fatal oversight”. The communication of these, and probably other concerns, were made to management which were apparently “brushed off”. The number of accidents reported was also up for scrutiny, implying that under-reporting of incidents and accidents was the norm.

The formality and rigour of the official report on one side and the almost casual personal viewpoint expressed by the newspaper article both provide vital information and lines of enquiry for the auditor. In particular, what mechanisms existed for proper communication of safety concerns? What maintenance regimes were in place, especially for checking venting and valve operations? What formal reviews were carried out at the design stage of the platform? Why were inspection doors left open? Perhaps most importantly of all, why was the risk assessment process inadequate?

Environment, health and safety and performance risk all come together on an oil platform. Fact, fiction and all that lies inbetween are similarly entwined and it is the work of the HSE auditor to tease them apart in order to reveal real and vital opportunities for improvement.