A Tale from Brent Delta

In April 2017, one of the four Brent platforms, Brent Delta, was lifted from its legs and transported to England for decommissioning, 41 years after its installation.

Cresents CEO, Jim Land, recently took a trip to see the platform that he once worked on and it certainly stirred some memories. Below, Jim tells a tale of an incident that happened on the Brent Delta which had a huge impact on the path his life was to take.

Introduction

This is a story of a young guy working on the Brent Delta that has served its useful purpose in the North Sea and is now being decommissioned in Teesside.  It is a story of betrayal and inspiration that led to numerous innovations and improvements in the safety of offshore workers over the years.  It’s my story and my take on the butterfly that beats its wings and sets off a hurricane on the other side of the planet.  Not quite so dramatic perhaps, but at times it has felt like it.  This all happened in the early 1980s on the Shell Brent Field northeast of Shetland.

What started it all

A colleague and I were told to do a job down one of the concrete legs that held up the Brent Delta.  If you have never seen down one of these legs they are huge in every way.  They have a large diameter that would fit a double decker bus inside and go all the way to the sea bed around two hundred metres down, this equates to a fifty story tower block so it’s a long way down.  The bottom of the legs is where contaminated water and toxic and flammable gasses can collect which means the air inside the leg may not be suitable to breathe and there is a possibility of a fire risk.  It’s a dark and scary place at the best of times.

Jim Land - in his younger days.

Jim Land - in his younger days.

The legs are entered through a large hatch at the top and then descended using a stairway.

Prior to entering the concrete leg to perform the work the Shell safety management system required a work permit to be issued to us.  We got this from the permit office where a coordinator also gave us a gas detector and a self-rescue breathing set “just in case you need it” we were told.

A third worker was to be stationed at the top of the concrete leg in the role of ‘stand by man’ to keep an eye on us in case anything went wrong.

Down we went and got on with our task which was about fifteen metres down where a scaffold had been built around a large gas riser pipe.  The task itself was straightforward and easily within the skill sets of my colleague and I so this was not going to be a problem.

Shell - Brent Delta

Shell - Brent Delta

What went wrong

It seemed like we had been in the concrete leg for a long time but it was probably only a couple of hours really.  We were working hard to try and get the job done quickly as its no place to hang about unnecessarily.  Then the gas detector started to alarm and our immediate concern was that something had caused the gas down the leg to rise up to where we were.

I quickly grabbed my self-rescue breathing set and opened the lid.  Inside there was a coiled up tube with a mouthpiece on the end.  The moment the set was opened the lid sprang off and fell down the leg never to be seen again, at least not by me.  The instructions for using the self-rescue breathing set were inside the lid.  They too had gone.

I turned to my colleague and he too had lost the lid and instructions for his set.

To the uninformed it isn’t immediately apparent how the set actually works.  There was a pin with a ring on the end so I pulled this and put the mouthpiece on.  The gas detector was still alarming so I headed up the leg to the entrance above.  My colleague followed behind.  On the way up the stairs it became very difficult to breathe and I had an overwhelming sense of being gassed.  I was much younger and fitter then so I did make it to the top of the leg where I ripped off the mouthpiece and gulped in a lung-full of air.  My colleague had managed to get air out of his self-rescue breathing set so was in better shape than me.

As we sat recovering by an open doorway to get fresh air the gas detector was still alarming.  Clearly, there couldn’t be that much gas sitting in a doorway with a breeze blowing in.

We decided enough was enough and it wasn’t safe to continue the work until something was done about the gas detector so we went back to the permit office to get a replacement.

At the permit office people were not happy.  In fact they were very annoyed that we had used our self-rescue breathing sets as the gas detector had alarmed due to a low battery and we should have known this apparently.

Betrayal

Because we had used our self-rescue breathing sets the matter had to be reported as a safety incident and we were sent to explain ourselves to the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM).  He too was very annoyed and asked us if we had any idea how much these self-rescue breathing sets cost each.  We of course had no idea.

We both got a dressing down and were sent off to do another job as we ‘were too stupid to work down the concrete leg’.

Learning from Experience

My colleague and I felt we had been betrayed by the company - Shell, by the OIM – the man responsible for the safety of everyone on the platform, and by those at the permit office – the people that should have coordinated the work better.

Neither of us had been trained to use a gas detector or a self-rescue breathing set so it was hardly surprising that we didn’t know what to do when the detector alarmed and when we tried to use the self-rescue breathing sets.  Nobody had asked us if we had been trained, in fact we weren’t trained to use the work permit system either.

I looked at the work permit for the first time to see what this said about the safety precautions for the job.  It made no mention of either a gas detector or self-rescue breathing sets even though there was provision to specify them using check boxes.

Allseas - Pioneering Spirit

Allseas - Pioneering Spirit

How could we be seen as so wrong when the people that should have been helping us to stay safe had been so lax in the way they managed the work?  Now it was my turn to be annoyed and from that day on I read every work permit, read the various procedures and generally became a bit of nuisance, as I was ‘Captain Compliance’ complaining when the details on the work permit weren’t either correct or complete.

A few months later I decided to move on and work elsewhere.  My experience though, stayed with me as I found it difficult to comprehend how the people that I relied upon as managers had such a low regard for my wellbeing, in fact for my life.  Had there really been toxic gas in the concrete leg I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Adding technical knowledge

I learned more about management systems, about management control and about steering behaviours to achieve a safer place of work.  I have subsequently been directly involved in revising and upgrading the permit work and associated systems for every International Oil Company I can think of, actually, I am very pleased to say, for Shell too.

Its strange how the world works sometimes, it was Shell that started me down this path and I was later heavily involved in revising their energy isolation system with them and to be fair, they did listen and they did end up with a better system and better implemented and so achieving a safer place to work for the next generation.

Helping others

We all work to earn a living, this applies to me as much as everyone.  Why we work isn’t important here though, its what gives us the most satisfaction while we are doing this that is so important.  I believe every system I have helped to update has been safer than it was before.  I have no idea how many people this has saved from experiencing their own safety incidents but I do know it must be a considerable number and this is the most satisfying part of my job by far.

For the past seventeen years or so, since I was involved in the very first electronic safe system of work I have helped to take this aspect of the potentially high hazard industries forward.  Automation and digitisation aren’t the answers but they do provide the opportunity to take safety at work to a new level if done properly.  I enjoy managing the conflicts and balances between safety system efficiency and safety system integrity.  If I have one overriding philosophy, its keeping things simple.  The easier something is the easier it is to learn.  Therefor the easier it is to comply with in a more reliable way.

Jim visiting Brent Delta now.

Jim visiting Brent Delta now.

Do I blame shell?

As I reflect on the past and my experience on Brent Delta all those years ago you may well ask if I hate Shell for putting me in such danger in such a callous manner.  In fact I don’t, quite the opposite.  I have seen Shell mature as an organisation into a more safety conscious business.  They certainly don’t tolerate the management behaviours now that they did back in the 1980s.

I am actually grateful to Shell.  Without the experience they gave me I wouldn’t be doing what I do now and have had the opportunity to contribute to safety at work as much as I have.  So, thank you Shell, I have no doubt that the OIM and the permit office people are long gone and we have all moved on from the lessons we have learned in the past.  This is just one story amongst the many that could be told.

What next?

If anyone reading this paper is put into a situation they feel is potentially unsafe and stops the work to reassess how safety is being assured I am pleased.  There are of course, situations like I found myself in where I was in no position to say what was or wasn’t safe and had to rely on others to manage this.  If you are managing the safety of others you too will hopefully stop the work until you are assured that it is safe for people to continue.

I frequently hear the saying “no job is so urgent that we can’t take the time to do it safely” and this is seen by some these days to be a bit of cliché.  Far from it, it’s as true now as it ever was.

The end of an era

The Brent Delta is now in Teesside being decommissioned and ultimately, scrapped.  The concrete legs aren’t there of course, they get cut down at the sea bed.  As the Brent Delta nears the end of its working life so do I and we both survived the years sometimes against the odds.  Newer facilities are considerably safer by design, in construction and operation and have far better safe systems of work now.  The North Sea safety performance statistics show how accidents have reduced over the years because many people, including me, have made the effort to achieve this.  Long may it continue to improve.