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November 16th, 2010

Could UK Offshore Safety Guidelines Work for Us?

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, comparisons are being drawn between the offshore safety record in the oil and gas drilling industry in the UK, and that in the US. There is no doubt that there are stark differences in the offshore safety record in both countries. The UK has a thriving oil and gas drilling industry, and although it has been marred by fatal offshore accidents in the past, accidents have been fewer in number than in the US.

What have they done that has proved to be so effective, and can it be replicated in the US? That’s the question the Obama administration is asking, and if they like the answer, we could see some of those same measures that seem to work so well in the UK, being replicated in this country too.

The major difference in how offshore safety programs are implemented in both countries is that in the US, federal agencies take it on themselves to draft hundreds of regulations.  As maritime attorneys know, these regulations can be very difficult to enforce. In the UK, on the other hand, the onus is on the oil and gas industry to decide what kind of measures maximize safety. The companies recommend the best practices to prevent offshore accidents to regulatory agencies. When an accident occurs, there can be no blame to go around because the companies have decided these practices themselves. This approach is called “safety case,” and is currently being used in oil and gas drilling regions across the world. The system has proved so successful in minimizing the risk of offshore accidents and injuries that other countries are also looking closer at adopting these guidelines.

The “safety case” system was developed in response to the devastating Piper Alpha explosion in the North Sea in 1988, which killed 167 men. A massive overhaul of existing offshore safety regulations was undertaken by the British government, and that has resulted in a system which seems to have greatly reduced the risk of such accidents.

The US Interior Department says it is looking into the possibility of having such a system in this country too.

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