Potentially serious breaches of health and safety have been taking place on the Laggan-Tormore pipeline, including men standing under sections of pipe as they were laid, according to one of the construction workers.
Brian Wishart from Lerwick has been working on the export pipeline currently being laid from the under-construction Total gas plant site next to Sullom Voe. But he quit on Saturday, frustrated at the working conditions.
Mr Wishart started his job as a banksman, directing vehicles and plant safely into the pipe-laying area, in October.
He was recruited, along with many other Shetlanders, by a local recruitment agency. The agency paid his wages of £12 per hour (£10 per hour for labourers) but he actually worked with Italian company Sicim, subcontractors to main contractor Total and Allseas, the company which oversees the safety of the project.
He, along with the other locals and some Italians directly employed by Sicim, would start work at 7am and finish at 5pm, six days a week. Overtime would only be paid if and when they were required to work on a Sunday.
They were outside all day in a muddy trench, dug to accommodate the pipeline. In his time there Mr Wishart had minor quibbles about protective clothing and meals, but more importantly he said working practices were often unsafe. He maintains that no-one dared speak out for fear of losing their job, a perception strongly rejected by a Total spokesman and Laggan-Tormore project manager Robert Faulds.
Mr Wishart, who was a safety rep at BP for nine years, said the work was particularly dangerous when the 7.2 tonne pipe sections were being lowered into position by side booms. He photographed two Italians, one supervisor and one banksman, bending down on the track beside a section of suspended pipe. Mr Wishart said they were removing rocks being washed down by the rain – at first they used a rake but when this did not work they did it by hand. He said: “It’s against all regulations to go under pipework but it was common practice.”
On another occasion he became aware that a man was inside a section of the 30-inch diameter pipe, apparently checking the internal machinery which joins the two pipes together, prior to welding. The man used a cigarette lighter to check the join, no torch being available. When Mr Wishart told Sicim safety advisers, they said: “Don’t tell anyone, we’ll deal with it.”
He also said workers would stand on the edge of the trench, 15 feet deep in places, with no “edge protection” or barrier.
The safety aspects were put to Total and to Mr Faulds. Having been shown the photo of the men under the suspended pipeline, the Total spokesman said: “Although a little indistinct, this photo does appear to suggest that there are a couple of people where they shouldn’t be. Having now had this brought to our attention, we will certainly investigate as a matter of urgency and take appropriate action.”
Mr Faulds said: “All staff are well briefed they cannot walk or move under a suspended load. It’s completely unacceptable, if we know about someone doing it they will be investigated, including being removed from the job. It’s industry standard. If he [Mr Wishart] didn’t stop the incident he should re-think his own priorities and values. I wouldn’t have stood by and took a photo.”
Concerning the allegation of a man inside the pipe, Mr Faulds said: “Nobody is ever allowed inside a pipe, end of story. Nobody would ever inspect a pipe from the inside, it’s totally ridiculous. If that happened I’d be absolutely stunned, it’s so ridiculous, they’d be fired and so would their supervisor.” Mr Faulds also said edge protection is not feasible in the case of the trench.
Two other incidents, cited by Mr Wishart, are already known to Mr Faulds. One was when the ring on the end of a sling lifting a pipe section parted – this is still under investigation. Mr Faulds said that although the ring was in good visual condition prior to use, the use of that particular type of lifting equipment on Total sites worldwide has now been suspended.
On another occasion a man damaged his fingers when he attempted to move a sling and his hand got stuck between the sling and the pipe. Mr Faulds has a statement from the person concerned about this.
In the areas of protective clothing and food workers are well provided for, said the Total spokesman. Boots and oilskins are available but, Mr Wishart said, they had to “fight” for suitable gloves, and in his time he said there was frequently a shortage of disposable ear plugs, necessary because grinding takes place on the pipelines before welding.
The workers have a “mobile canteen” on site providing sandwiches, crisps and drinks, but the highlight of the working day for Mr Wishart was a hot lunch at Mossbank Hall, to which the workers were bussed around noon. But on various occasions, when there was a rush to finish a job, the men had to make do with the mobile canteen.
The final straw for Mr Wishart, and the one that made him quit, came last Saturday. He and around a dozen other men were preparing to go to the hall for lunch but were told at the last minute they would not be going so that they could go home at 3.30pm rather than 4.30pm. Mr Wishart, who had last eaten at 6am, ended up having no food that day because the mobile canteen was at another site. He said: “According to my union [Unite] the legal working time is six hours, then you get a 20 minute break. I left at the end of the day because of the unsafe practices and lack of meals.”
Mr Faulds said sometimes jobs have to be finished before taking meals for health and safety reasons, and if workers miss their meals they would be compensated. Mr Wishart had never heard of that, however.
In spite of Mr Wishart’s allegations safety procedures are high on the site’s agenda. Every morning there is a “tool box talk” and Allseas stresses in its health and safety plan, seen by The Shetland Times, that personnel will have the opportunity to raise issues during these talks or at any site briefing. But, said Mr Wishart: “The threat of redundancies is so great that no-one likes to speak up or they will be singled out.” He said that two outspoken lifting supervisors and a welder were “not required back” after going on leave.
In his own case: “I spoke up and left the same day.”
Mr Faulds denied that anyone would ever be victimised for speaking out. He said: “Frankly in 25 years [in the industry] I’ve never seen it happen. If someone came to me because of such and such I’d sit down [and talk] with them.” He pointed out that safety observation cards are available for making anonymous complaints, and a confidential mobile phone number directly to the site rep for raising issues in confidence is also in place.
He also said the Laggan-Tormore project is ahead of schedule and there is no pressure on workers to complete the job prior to the arrival of the pipelaying vessel in April, when the undersea section of the pipeline will be laid.
The Total spokesman said no complaints had been received by Total or its subcontractors regarding working conditions.
In a statement to The Shetland Times, Total said: “On this work package, as on all others connected with Laggan-Tormore, all works are strictly maintained and audited in line with UK legislation, as well as being subject to Total’s own rigorous internal audit.
“As such, full PPE (personal protective equipment), including waterproof clothing, is provided without restriction and is routinely replenished as required each morning. If the complainant genuinely did fail to receive appropriate PPE, which we would frankly find very surprising, we can only imagine it was the result of an oversight that could have been easily rectified by just drawing it to someone’s attention.
“While it’s true that some operations on the export pipeline may involve hands and clothes getting damp, facilities for washing and drying hands are readily accessible at the work site and no restrictions are placed on how often somebody can access them. Meanwhile, comprehensive facilities for washing and drying clothes are available day and night in the main accommodation compound.
“During the one hour lunch break, [workers] will be transported by bus from the work site to Mossbank Hall less than a kilometre away and offered a hot meal. While at his work station, they will also have access to the rolling welfare facility which supplies hot and cold food and drinks throughout the day – free of charge.
“Those employed on other jobs at different locations on the Laggan-Tormore site may have slightly different working hours and welfare arrangements, but everyone is treated with similar fairness and equally well provided for.
“On Laggan-Tormore, as on all our sites, we see the health, safety and welfare of our workers as our highest priority – whether they are directly employed or contracted – which is why we and our sub-contractors on Laggan-Tormore take every reasonable step to make working on the project as safe, comfortable and rewarding as we possibly can.”