Workers at an Esso oil rig in the Bass Strait were afraid of being sacked if they raised safety concerns in the lead-up to a “flash fire” that injured an employee on the drilling platform in April.
The federal offshore oil and gas regulator has ordered the company to hire independent experts for a sweeping review of its eight oil rigs in the strait after a scathing assessment of the workplace culture before the fire.
Workers feared for their jobs on a Bass Strait oil rigCredit:James Davies
The notice to take action, published on Tuesday, is the second major intervention this year into the Bass Strait operations by the normally hands-off National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA).
In May the authority ordered a massive environmental clean-up, ruling that 180 gas wells in the area should be capped and 10 drilling platforms dismantled.
The worker suffered burns to his hands and arms in the three-second “flash fire” on the Kingfish B platform about 90 kilometres off the coast of Lakes Entrance on April 26 when gas vapour ignited during maintenance work. He was working for maintenance contractor UGL.
The ensuing investigation by NOPSEMA concluded that a series of failures to take reasonably steps to mitigate the risk of fire or explosion led to the worker being hurt.
Derrick O’Keeffe, the head of the regulator’s safety and integrity division, also found employees on the rig were worried that speaking out about safety concerns would put their jobs on the line.
“Members of the workforce felt unable to convey their concerns about the work and were concerned that their ongoing employment would be at risk if they did so,” Mr O’Keefe wrote in his notice.
In addition to the sweeping independent safety review, the NOPSEMA official has also ordered an investigation into why workers on the rig felt unable to speak out on safety.
Esso, now run in Australia as a joint venture between BHP and ExxonMobil, has produced oil and gas from the Bass Strait since 1969.
Over the four decades, 421 wells have been sunk, 19 platforms built and about 600km of pipeline laid on the seabed.
ExxonMobil has been contacted for comment.
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