Cuts and changes to working practices causing problems at Sullom Voe, harbour master admits

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Shetland Islands Council has admitted that staff cutbacks and new working practices among the marine workforce at Sella Ness risk hindering the running of the oil port at Sullom Voe.

New procedures agreed under the council’s Ports for the Future efficiency drive have eroded employees’ goodwill at the Sella Ness base and a depleted management team is struggling to keep up with its responsibilities, according to harbour master Roger Moore.

Further evidence of the new systems straining to cope after £1 million of cuts is the action now being taken to re-assess the shift system imposed last year on the pilot launches after a crew shortage led to a tanker having to be turned away from Sullom Voe for a few hours.

In an attempt to iron out the difficulties Captain Moore is asking for money to hire in outside help to do a major review of the port’s risk assessment and safety management systems.

While he is confident that the harbour is “demonstrably safe in all its elements”, the admission of problems confirms what pilots and other senior marine sources at Sella Ness have been warning for months regarding cracks appearing in the previously formidable safety regime at one of Europe’s main oil ports.

The problems have now been acknowledged officially in a report by Captain Moore to be tabled at the harbour board tomorrow afternoon. It is his responsibility to ensure there are no shipping disasters which could cost lives and destroy Shetland’s pristine and priceless environment. As well as the boss of the port of Sullom Voe he is in charge of other council-owned harbours, principally Scalloway, Cullivoe and Symbister.

Reflecting on the changes wrought by Ports for the Future, Captain Moore says many of them had been “difficult and unpopular” for employees. “Unpopular changes have made it difficult to maintain the level of flexibility that was previously accepted as normal,” he warns his board. That had affected “operational deliverability” generally but there had not been a direct impact on safety.

A lack of continuity in management and the loss of clerical and finance staff at Sella Ness have also made life more difficult, he warns the board. Extra managers are now being sought but with appointments not likely before April he warns that interim measures are needed to avoid leaving the port “without proper and adequate management cover”.

“Filing, meetings and documentation are all key issues of any safety management system,” he warns. “With the changes and resources available it is increasingly difficult to keep up with all these requirements in a timely and proper fashion.”

The official Safety Management System for the port is currently being updated. But Captain Moore says it was based on an old formal risk assessment and therefore both it and the safety system need “a major revision”. Failure to do so could increase the danger of an accident and leave the council liable to prosecution.

The intention is to have the systems tweaked before the port’s independent safety auditors Det Norske Veritas arrive for their annual audit in the summer.

Under Ports for the Future the workforce on the pilot launches and tugs has been whittled down. Pilots have been taken off tanker traffic monitoring duties and replaced by cheaper dedicated operators. Meanwhile two new tugs have joined the fleet, bringing their own operational problems.

In August the port control centre at Sella Ness was left unmanned for the first time in 33 years due to a shortage of vessel traffic operators, prompting the former harbour boss Captain George Sutherland to warn that safety had been “severely compromised”.

Changing patterns in the oil business at the Sullom Voe Terminal are also placing new challenges on the port team at Sella Ness. While the number of crude tankers continues to fall and gas tankers no longer visiting there has been new activity from ship-to-ship oil cargo transfers and a big upturn in shipping connected to the Total gas plant – which is being built next to the existing oil terminal – and the associated pipe-laying task out to the Laggan-Tormore gas field.

Meanwhile, the port of Scalloway has too few marine staff available to operate 24-hour cover all year round without the need for considerable expensive overtime. Captain Moore is looking into the best solution to that problem too.


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