from Hesamag, June 2012
Jake Malloy is angry. Sitting in his cramped and recently flooded office near the docks in Aberdeen, he is talking about his union’s 20-year campaign to reduce the working hours of North Sea oil and gas workers.
The UK’s highest court has recently ruled against the union. “Nothing’s changed,” he says. “Offshore workers continue to work 12 hours a night in very hazardous, high risk environments, and nothing’s changed.”
Malloy, the offshore energy organiser with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), lost a legal battle in the Supreme Court in London in December 2011. Technically, it was about the application of the European Union (EU) Working Time Directive to offshore workers, and what that meant for legal holiday entitlements.
But it was also about how long working hours degrade quality of life, endanger workers’ health and ultimately put lives at risk. It was about shift patterns, living accommodation and the danger of leaks and accidents.
Underlying the arguments were different visions of the kind of working life, and the kind of society, that people in a modern industrial age deserve, and how to balance that against profits made for shareholders. For many, the outcome clearly demonstrated that the UK North Sea oil industry has a long way to go to deliver a decent job for its employees.
Malloy, an offshore worker who founded the Oil Industry Liaison Committee in 1997, an independent trade union now merged with RMT, is cross that other unions didn’t support the workers’ case. He is furious with the employers for fighting all the way, and dismissive of the judges who made the final decision.
“The wrangling ended with five men who have no concept of what life offshore is actually like deciding that we have no entitlement in law to take time off work for a holiday,” he says.
The judgement will enable employers who have voluntarily given workers longer shore breaks to cut back, and may encourage other backward steps, he warns. “It leaves many thousands of workers extremely vulnerable to further attacks on their employment conditions.”
Malloy is particularly upset that the judges were influenced by the suggestion that North Sea oil workers were like teachers or professional footballers so didn’t need legal holiday entitlements. This also infuriated scores of workers who sent in emails to RMT protesting about the court decision.
“What planet do they come from?” one offshore worker demanded to know. “Let them see our lives out here. We have to sleep on a time bomb for nothing. They make me weep.”
“I'm so angry I'm finding it hard to put this into words,” said another. “Does a footballer or teacher risk their lives in a dangerous environment on a daily basis?” asked a third. “I think not.”
Judges were accused of a “staggering level of ignorance” about the offshore industry. “I have a sick feeling right to the pit of my stomach, after all these years of hoping that the high and mighty, educated men and women at the highest court in the land would see our side of this issue,” commented one worker.
The court decision was variously described as “shocking”, “unacceptable” and “a disgrace”. Argued another worker: “This just goes to show the employers don’t give a damn about health and safety - just profits.”
Long legal battle
The legal battle began back in 1992, with a trade union trip to Brussels to lobby the European Parliament to extend the Working Time Directive to include offshore workers in the UK. They wanted UK employers to abandon the two-weeks-on/two weeks off rota in favour of two-weeks-on and three-or-four-weeks-off, in common with workers in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea.
After the election of a Labour government in 1997, the UK embraced the EU working time regulations and, after prolonged negotiations, agreed in 2003 that they should cover offshore workers. That, however, was only the start of the fight.
North Sea employers launched legal proceedings arguing that the regulations did not apply beyond 12 miles of the UK shore. For three years they argued their case at an employment tribunal and then at an employment appeal tribunal, and lost.
Then in 2007, the trade unions took employers to an employment tribunal arguing for two weeks paid leave every year, and won. “It is the conclusion of the tribunal that the claimants are entitled to fourteen days of annual leave, to be taken at a time or at times when they would otherwise be working offshore,” the tribunal said. Complaints that offshore workers had been deprived of their rights under the working time regulations were “well-founded”.
The employers, however, appealed and got the tribunal’s verdict overturned, first at an appeal tribunal, then at the Court of Session in Edinburgh and finally at the Supreme Court in London last year. Employers were entitled under the regulations to insist that offshore workers “must take their paid annual leave during periods when they are onshore on field break,” the Supreme Court judges concluded.
The final outcome was criticised by Professor Andrew Watterson, an occupational health expert from the University of Stirling in Scotland. Resistance to the Working Time Directive had been strong in the UK despite evidence that physical and mental health is improved by cutting working hours, he said.
“For offshore workers, in an industry that contains some of highest major hazards and concentrated patterns of working hours, it is especially disappointing that UK-based employers continue to refuse to give workers more paid leave,” he argued. “This is in an industry which makes enormous profits and hence is not strapped for cash and also has a horrible record over several decades for major rig disasters involving multiple worker fatalities.”
The Supreme Court was, according to RMT’s Jake Malloy, “our last roll of the dice”. The union has spent up to £500,000 on legal fees only to have the issue resolved by “turning the whole thing into a mathematical equation on working hours,” he said. The court did not appreciate that all the time workers spend on rigs, outside their 12-hour shifts, is not really time off.
“All time offshore is working time,” he maintained. “You’re in your bed, but still available for work. You can be called upon to work, and you’ve still got to respond to alarms and emergencies. You’re still subject to control by your employer, and your 12 hours off aren’t necessarily your own.”
Malloy argued that the long hours worked offshore were bound to cause fatigue, damage workers’ health and increase the risk of accidents and oil leaks. This is particularly so for 6-7,000 drill workers, who make up about a quarter of the UK’s offshore workforce, work in the most dangerous environment and tend to have less time off.
“They carry out the most physically and mentally demanding tasks in the industry and they have no entitlement at all to any reduction in hours. In fact their annual hours are increasing, year on year, because of the need for greater competency, greater skills, more training,” he said. “For a drill worker, one slip and you’re looking at a major injury. If you’ve got lumps of metal flying about on a pipe deck, or a drill, you’ve got to be 100% focussed on the job. You cannot have distractions.”
The type of accommodation the workers have, and the amount of sleep they get, are crucial. Although most workers in the Norwegian sector now have their own cabins, many UK workers still have to share with one or even more colleagues. That can mean cramped conditions, lack of storage space and sleep often disturbed by people snoring or moving about.
Malloy recounted a series of horror stories about toilets overflowing and cabins being flooded by sewage. It’s worse than being in jail, he joked. “You cannot over-estimate the stress the men are under. Lack of sleep, alarms going, doors banging - they really can’t manage all of this. They need privacy and comfort.”
The trade unions are backed by Colin MacFarlane, an emeritus professor at Strathclyde University’s marine engineering department in Glasgow. “Fatigue, sleep deficit and changes of shift are all substantially correlated with workplace accidents,” he said. “And chronic fatigue and sleep deficit are correlated with longer term health problems.”
He quoted research suggesting that shift workers had a 40% increased risk of heart disease. There was evidence that long working hours caused more physical aches and pains, as well as greater mental stress. There were some indications that the longer shore breaks common in Norway could have resulted in fewer injuries than in the UK, though comparisons were difficult.
Some particularly telling studies showed that staying awake for long periods can impair the ability of people to perform tasks as if they were drunk. A single period of 17 hours wakefulness is like having a blood alcohol content of 0.05%, with 19 hours awake equivalent to 0.1%. The legal limit for driving a car in the UK is 0.08%. “Offshore installations are being operated by personnel whose decision making capabilities make them very unsafe for driving,” said MacFarlane.
Fatigue makes workers more likely to make errors and miss out important tasks. “In that way the barriers to stop larger accidents are degraded,” he argued. “On top of that, fatigue will make the reactions to emergency events more prone to mistakes. I think that we've seen that often when situations offshore move away from the normal, or commercial stress builds.”
MacFarlane pointed out, though, that the evidence showed that most of the dangers from fatigue were concentrated in night shifts worked for 12 hours for either seven or 14 days. A Norwegian study in 2007 found 30% more serious injuries occurred during night shifts compared to day shifts, particularly among maintenance and construction workers.
The point is reinforced by Dr Kathy Parkes, a psychologist from the University of Oxford who authored a report in 2010 for the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on the impacts of working hours in the North Sea. Although offshore workers are healthier than onshore workers because they have to pass more rigorous medical tests, “the scheduling of offshore day and night shift work does pose problems,” she said.
“But the health and safety effects are primarily due to the need for the body clock to adapt to night work, especially if rapid day and night shift changes are involved, rather than to long work hours as such.” According figures from her report, working 14 straight night shifts was like having 28-hour jet lag, and resulted in an average “sleep deficit” of 16 hours. Working seven night shifts followed by seven day shifts resulted in a 62-hour jet lag and a sleep deficit of 20 hours (see table below).
Parkes recommended that working seven nights and seven days, known as a “rollover”, should be avoided if at all possible. “If a mid-tour rollover schedule is retained, the additional health and safety risks inherent in this system should be recognised and mitigated by reduction in workload and/or provision of an extra team member in the work area concerned,” her report concluded.
The North Sea oil and gas industry recognised that the welfare of workers was key to safety, and agreed with the need for “sufficient” rest periods. “Typical offshore rotas allow for over 26 weeks onshore, away from work, which the Supreme Court recently ruled more than meets the requirement of the Working Time Directive,” said Alix Thom, the skills and employment policy manager with Oil & Gas UK, which represents employers.
“Many shift patterns already allow employees more time at home than they spend offshore and some companies gift additional leave. These were provided by companies going over and above what they were legally obliged to provide and we are not aware of any company planning to reduce this as a result of the Supreme Court decision.”
This will not, however, be much comfort to Jake Malloy as he taps his keyboard in his bare-boarded dockland office. In his experience, the problems being suffered by his offshore union members are getting worse. He recites a litany of recent complaints, including one from a stewardess who suffered severe panic attacks before boarding a helicopter to a rig.
“I’m dealing now, today, with more working relationships breaking down than I’ve ever come across. It’s the stress and strains of being banged up in poor accommodation with increasing workloads,” he says.
“Workers are complaining about their peers for things which years ago would have been a bit of banter. There is no fun any more. It has become a very intense environment to the point that you can be disciplined for one slip of the tongue. That causes any amount of anxiety.”
Malloy reckons that workers in the offshore industry, with partners away from home for weeks on end, have one of the highest divorce rates of any industry. “They are suffering a lot more anxiety, mental health problems, panic attacks and stress,” he says. “They simply can’t cope.” The fight to reduce their working hours continues.
Giving it a blast: Mikey Craig
Mikey Craig likes to play the bagpipes. But when he is working offshore on a North Sea oil rig, he can’t practice in the confines of his small accommodation module for fear of disturbing others.
So he dons his boiler suit, boots and hard hat and heads for the helideck, where, weather permitting, he can give Scotland’s national instrument a good blast. Even there, though, he has had complaints from fellow workers, who apparently prefer the noise of high pressure blasting and paint spraying to the skirl of the pipes.
Mikey is a 44-year-old radio operator from Perth who has been working offshore since 1989. He gave evidence in support of the trade union case for shorter working hours at an employment tribunal in Aberdeen in 2007, where he disclosed his bagpipe problems.
It’s just one of the examples he gave of the stresses and strains of working unbroken 12-hour shifts from 7am to 7pm every day for three weeks while cooped up on a rig in the middle of the wild sea. He sometimes has to work overtime too - up to an extra four hours a day - when helicopters arrive out of hours or in emergencies.
Working such long hours, Mikey needs his sleep and relaxation, but they are often disturbed on a rig. He can be woken in the middle of the night to re-establish radio communication broken by bad weather, or to deal with an emergency, or sometimes by false alarms. Because of the “adrenaline rush”, he says it is hard to get back to sleep.
Rigs are also very noisy places, even at night. Mikey, who has been an elected trade union safety representative, recalls how the racket from a 24/7 spraying and repainting exercise kept him and others awake. The noise and vibrations from anchor adjustments, or heavy steel containers being landed from supply ships, can also be disruptive.
Sometimes, he has had to share sleeping cabins with other workers, which he found very uncomfortable. “I am often woken through the night when my co-habitant snores, or needs to visit the toilet,” he says. “I am also woken sometimes by noise which is going on outside my cabin.”
Mikey maintains that it is impossible to get proper rest when he is on the rig, because he is never really off duty. “When I am offshore I feel very isolated from my home life, in fact isolated from everything except the rig,” he says. “There is absolutely no escape.”
“Sometimes my wife struggles without me being home to share the burden of certain family and domestic problems. This can put a strain on our relationship at these times where she has to take on my role as husband and father in my absence.”
After working for three weeks, Mikey gets to go home to his family for three weeks, but it takes time to adjust. “My wife and I both struggle for about three days after I return home before I can switch off from being on the rig,” he says.
“When I have adjusted to being back home, I enjoy the same sort of life as any other normal individual. I enjoy spending time with my family, going for a meal or a drink with friends, walking in the hills around Perth, playing a round of golf.
“But most importantly I enjoy the natural comfort of sharing a bed with my wife and being a husband and father. These are the interests I cannot and I have never been able to pursue whilst I am hundreds of miles away, isolated on an offshore drilling rig.”
Skidding the rig: John Price
When North Sea operators have to “skid the rig” to move to different oil wells, John Price wakes up. “The anchor winch is directly through the bulkhead in my cabin, which is very noisy,” he says. “Not just noisy, it vibrates you out of your bed.”
Hailing from Ayr, John has been working offshore since 1992, and has been a driller since 2004. He gave evidence to the Aberdeen employment tribunal in support of the trade union case for short working hours in 2007, alongside Mikey Craig.
His work patterns, however, have been different. He has worked 12-hour day shifts from 7am to 7pm every day for two weeks offshore, followed by a two-week break onshore. He has then returned to the rig to switch to working nights from 7pm to 7am for two weeks, reverting to day shifts again on his next trip offshore.
Sleep when offshore is crucial for health and safety, but John didn’t always get enough. It’s the luck of the draw which sleeping cabin workers get allocated, he points out.
“I’m in one of the noisiest cabins on the rig, which is directly under the helideck, which means that when you have two choppers a day and you are on night-shift you get woken up twice a day,” he says.
“The shifts are long and hard and I am exhausted by the end of each one, especially if I am on nights and not sleeping well. I am usually drained and exhausted at the end of my two week stint offshore.”
Working nights is the hardest, John points out. “The night shifts really take it out of me. On my return home it takes three to four days to adjust after working night shifts.”
His job is “very tough” and “extremely stressful” because he works under great pressure, he says. “We have to work in all weather conditions including rain, snow and high winds. It can be extremely cold on the rig in the winter and the working conditions can be far from pleasant.”
The sleep lost by night shifts
shift pattern offshore / disruption to body clock (‘jet lag’)/ sleep deficit
14 day shifts / 14 hours / 13 hours
14 night shifts / 28 hours / 16 hours
7 day shifts followed by 7 night shifts / 26 hours / 18 hours
7 night shifts followed by 7 day shifts / 62 hours / 20 hours
source: ‘Offshore working time in relation to performance, health and safety: a review of current practice and evidence’ by the University of Oxford for the Health and Safety Executive (Parkes, 2010).