The general secretary of the UK’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has warned that the collision between a Valaris-owned rig and a platform supply vessel (PSV) in the North Sea highlights the hidden safety threats arising from the race to win lucrative deals for the sake of profit while disregarding proper maritime procedures.

The PSV Ben Navis collied with the Valaris-owned Valaris JU-92 (former Ensco 92) jack-up rig on 17 November 2021 in the North Sea. The PSV was previously owned by Global Offshore Services, however, it is now understood that the vessel is currently managed by Columbia Ship Management.

A month after the collision, on 17 December 2021, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) served a notice against Valaris, stating that the offshore drilling contractor was failing to ensure the health and safety of its employees and others due to a failure to “implement a safe system of work to control vessel operations within the 500-metre safety zone around the installation.”

Valaris JU-92 jack-up; Courtesy of Valaris
Valaris JU-92 jack-up; Courtesy of Valaris

The safety watchdog further explained that the Valaris rig was involved in cargo transfer operations with the PSV Ben Nevis at the time of the collision. The PSV was on the drift-on side of Valaris 92 and both the wind and current were pushing it towards the rig, which resulted in the vessel crashing onto the forward leg of the rig, causing it to sustain significant damage, take on water and return to port for repairs.

Therefore, the HSE claims that Vlaris operated contrary to recognised marine industry practice and guidelines “without a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and without having in place reasonably practicable safeguards such as implementing maximum environmental limits for drift-on working.”

In a statement on Thursday, Mick Lynch, RMT General Secretary, reminded: “The previous owner of the Maltese-flagged Ben Nevis was caught out by maritime regulators in Aberdeen and Rotterdam for failing to pay seafarers wages, and at poverty rates. Now the new owner has been involved in an incident which reflects a safety culture underpinned by commercial pressures.”

Specifically, back on 14 December 2020,  the PSV Ben Nevis was detained by the Dutch authorities in the port of Rotterdam for failure to pay 15 crew members for their work in October and November that year.

Commenting on the failure to pay crew wages, Mick Cash, RMT General Secretary at the time, said in December 2020: “The crewing agents and others profiting from these abusive, ‘low cost’ practices must be exposed and prevented from tendering for supply chain contracts on any part of the European Continental Shelf. This is a key test of the UK government’s commitment to increase domestic employment from the transition to net-zero.”

PSV Ben Navis; Source: RMT
PSV Ben Navis; Source: RMT

The latest incident between the Valaris rig and the PSV Ben Navis serves to emphasise the detriments of chasing the bottom line without paying proper attention to the safety features and standards, which are needed to limit the risk of injury arising from such a collision, based on RMT’s latest statement.

In line with this, Lynch added: “The Valaris installation was damaged and lives were endangered, as the vessel was knowingly operated in contravention of procedures and good maritime practice. Commercial pressure is driving this dangerous behaviour. We have repeatedly called on industry and Government to address the issues around commercial pressure otherwise operators will continue to drive down standards, especially on health and safety, as well as pay, crewing levels and fatigue across the contractor supply chain.”

PSV Ben Navis; Courtesy of Global Offhore Services
PSV Ben Navis; Courtesy of Global Offshore Services

The RMT general secretary also explained that the consequences of such behaviour are already visible within the PSV industry and “in this case non-compliance with basic safety standards in order to win profitable contracts in the North Sea.” As a result of such malpractices and failures to comply with maritime regulations and safety standards voyages are extended onboard vessels for two or more months,  workers are underpaid or they do not receive wages for months at a time.

“The industry supply chain principles have to be strengthened, or reputable vessel operators employing domestic crews with proven safety standards and decent pay and conditions will continue to be undermined by this disgraceful race to the bottom. With that we will see the potential seriousness of these incidents increase,” concluded Lynch.

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