Union leaders described the offshore petroleum safety regulator as a “toothless tiger” at a hearing in Sale on Tuesday, alleging its lack of effectiveness could compromise safety.
The concerns were heard at a Senate inquiry into offshore health and safety regulations, which sat in Sale, where union representatives and former maintenance workers alleged their workplace concerns often went unheard.
The current regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, is an industry-supported body, but union representatives addressing the inquiry said NOPSEMA had been referred to as ‘Not Our Problem, See Esso Management for Approval’, by some of its critics.
The inquiry is investigating whether legislation regarding jurisdiction, effectiveness and accountability needs to be updated.
Industry bodies and major employers, such as the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, oil and gas lobby group the Australian Mines and Metals Association, and producers BHP, Chevron and Woodside appeared in Fremantle, while the Electrical Trades Union, Australian Workers’ Union, Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, and the Maritime Union of Australia appeared in Sale, focusing on the experiences of health and safety representatives employed at Esso’s offshore platforms.
Former maintenance contractor and health and safety representative Troy Carter, who worked on Esso’s Bass Strait platforms, was brought to tears as he spoke about the lack of action he received after filing a safety issue with his employer.
He questioned the safety of scaffold clips, but after flagging the issue, he alleged he was cut out of the consultation process, undermined, and later summoned by a supervisor and abused.
Another former worker, Dane Coleman, said he had been a health and safety representative for a contractor during the battery fire on the West Tuna platform in 2015, yet was not interviewed by NOPSEMA inspectors.
The unions alleged employers, who knew inspectors were coming, would chaperone them around platforms, and there were limited opportunities for health and safety representatives to discuss issues.
The inquiry is being chaired by Labor Senator Gavin Marshall, who said the evidence from the former workers was “powerful”, and it was “extraordinary” there was a backlog of reported incidents that had reportedly not been followed up.
There was also a challenge in finding candidates to be health and safety representatives, as the NOPSEMA-accredited training required was hard to access, and there were fears of reprisals from employers if they spoke up.
There were hearings in Fremantle last month, and in Melbourne on Wednesday. NOPSEMA and WorkSafe, among other organisations, appeared in Melbourne.
NOPSEMA officials in Melbourne mentioned some workers would approach inspectors privately, “behind closed doors”, which union representatives said showed workers were afraid to speak publicly for fear of losing their jobs.
The regulator’s officials disagreed repeatedly when Senator Marshall asked if NOPSEMA was a “soft-touch” regulator.
Instead, they pointed to enforcement notices that had been issued, and initiatives to spread “learnings” from incidents to other worksites.
Union officials said the casualisation of the workforce had led to more experienced workers losing their jobs, and asked for more access and more independence for NOPSEMA, suggesting chartering helicopters for surprise inspections.
In its submission to the inquiry, AMMA noted increased union access may lead to “mischievous” disruptions, citing several cases, mainly involving the construction industry.
The problem of jurisdictional issues for oil production vessels was also raised.
These vary between regulating bodies depending on whether they are docked, travelling to wells or beginning production.
After being approached by the Gippsland Times for comment, an Esso spokesperson said safety was more than a priority, it was a core value and “an integral part of our culture”.
“Protecting the health and safety of our workforce is fundamental to our business,” he said.
“All of our employees and third-party contractors have the responsibility to work safely, regardless of job function.
“We actively encourage our workforce to report any safety concerns without fear of retribution, so we can identify and prevent incidents before they occur and apply these learnings across all of our operations to ensure a safe workplace for all.
“Regulation is important for our industry as it guides behaviour and how we work.
“We have systems in place for reporting, and we also have workplace health and safety representatives located across our operations, including our offshore facilities.”
The inquiry’s final report is due on August 18.