Workers on North Sea platforms are scared for their health amid a series of Covid-19 outbreaks, the Evening Express can reveal today.
Dozens of workers are self-isolating after positive tests on several installations last week, with a number of different operators affected.
Unite, the largest offshore trade union in the UK has said it is “very concerned” about the rising numbers of cases in the sector in recent weeks.
It claims measures put in place to combat the spread of the virus have been relaxed in a bid to increase working hours.
That, bosses say, has increased the amount of time employees spend in close proximity – amid fears it could lead to a greater risk of the virus spreading through the workforce.
John Boland, regional organiser for the union, said: “Unite is very concerned about the increase in Covid cases offshore, and the impact on our members, who are scared for their own health and their families.
“We have seen Covid cases on the EnQuest Producer, and several Covid cases on the Shell, TAQA, and BP platforms in the last weeks and this will increase, particularly in our view, where testing is not being carried out. This is the single biggest request we get from members, that more testing is carried out, both onshore and offshore.”
Mr Boland said in some North Sea operators had relaxed measures brought in for rig workers at the start of the pandemic.
He said: “Some of the measures that were put in place earlier in the year are now being relaxed, not because the risk has decreased, but because operators say they need to increase working hours.
“A prime example is operators moving to same shift cabin sharing from split shift sharing and increasing the time the workforce is in close proximity to each other. We have raised our objections to this.
“We will continue to do everything we can to keep our members safe during this pandemic.”
BP’s Andrew platform and EnQuest’s Producer have also recorded one positive case.
Unite has been at the forefront of calls for testing of all offshore workers, whether they show symptoms of Covid-19 or not.
There is currently no industry standard testing protocol for workers who are asymptomatic.
Some operators test their workers before flying, while they are offshore and when they return, while others only test before departing for their stint on the rigs.
And the Evening Express also understands at least one operator based in the North Sea only carries out temperature checks before workers fly from Aberdeen.
A Shell spokesman said: “With the rise in infection rates across the UK we are working to manage the impact on our operations through good hygiene, social distancing, pre-mobilisation screening and, where an individual exhibits symptoms, isolation at the facility before safe transportation to their homes. In addition, we trace contacts of any suspected case on our platforms and ensure they also get home safely to self-isolate.
“The welfare of our people and the safe operation of our assets is always our priority. Given the changing circumstances we’re constantly reviewing the controls we have in place in order to safeguard these priorities, while continuing to supply the critical energy the UK relies on.”
A spokeswoman for EnQuest said the company has the capacity to test workers who do show symptoms without flying them back to shore – reducing the risk to other employees.
She added: “EnQuest has a robust policy for the management of Covid-19 on all its installations and at its facilities globally.
“The company has engaged with all relevant stakeholders, including industry and medical organisations.
“The company continues to work with them to ensure its operational response and advice to its workforce is appropriate and commensurate with the prevailing expert advice and level of risk.”
TAQA could not be reached for comment, but the firm previously said: “We have clear procedures in place in relation to hygiene and social distancing measures on board and for handling suspected and confirmed cases of Covid-19.
“We continue to work with the relevant authorities and agencies to assess and respond to any Covid-19 related situations in line with UK government and Health Protection Scotland guidelines.”
And a BP spokesman said: “BP’s priority is the safety, health and well being of our people.
“We continue to monitor this situation closely, following all guidance and ensuring this is communicated across our workforce.
“We have robust preventative barriers which have remained in place throughout the pandemic. These include safe passage travel and accommodation measures as well as pre-mobilisation testing.
“Offshore, we are building platform testing capabilities and have well-practised procedures in the event of suspected cases offshore.”
Dr Alix Thom, OGUK’s workforce engagement and skills manager, said: “The UKCS workforce is drawn from all parts of the UK and beyond, in areas that have the lowest rate of infection to those that might be on very high alert. Operators manage the risk of Covid-19 offshore through the introduction of barriers, ranging from simple personal hygiene to, in some cases, testing the workforce both on and offshore.
“These barriers can never be 100% fool-proof so there is always a risk that Covid-19 can be transmitted offshore, albeit evidence would suggest that the industry has done an excellent job in keeping cases to a minimum.
“When we do have cases such as those recently, standard protocols kick in and what you are seeing with some operators is exactly what is meant to happen. Suspected cases, which we describe as Cat Cs, are medically evacuated. Those who are deemed to have been in close contact are then handled as Cat B passengers and are demobilised as a precautionary measure.
“In terms of cabin sharing, the current safe working guideline has always noted this may need to happen to permit essential work to go ahead. However, the workforce will always be consulted on any changes and we would manage this.
“We have to continually balance the job we have to do: that is security of supply and ensuring we are heating people’s homes. However, our number one priority remains the health and safety of our workforce throughout what remains a challenging period for this industry and that is always forefront of our mind.”
A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive said: “HSE continues to regulate offshore to ensure installations have Covid-secure compliance measures in place.
“We recognise the concerns raised by offshore workers and trade unions and continue to work with operators to minimise the risk of Covid-19.
“Where there are problems with transmission, HSE will take enforcement action to make sure risks are brought under control.”