By Lily Thomas Jr- SAJU JAKOB
With India still struggling with high numbers of corona infections, which have strained capacities of hospitals and oxygen supplies, the country was struck by another blow when cyclone Tauktae hit the west coast of India, triggering heavy losses and disruption, including dead and missing on the high seas. Tauktae was the largest cyclone in the region for decades.
The collapse of a barge off the coast of Mumbai brought into focus health and safety issues relating to offshore activity on the high seas, especially by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC), which is the custodian of such activities. The Mumbai High oil and gas field is located 176 km of the west coast off Mumbai. India ranks third in the world for energy consumption, and oil and gas contributes 41 percent of its consumption, 80 percent of which are imported. India attempts to enhance domestic production by adopting various licensing regimes to companies, especially ONGC. The large number of deaths following the cyclone raises the obvious question: Are they really following the ISO standards or international best practices in terms of safety guidelines in the offshore industry?
The sinking of Barge P305 with a compliment of 261 personnel, contracted to ONGC, resulting in the death of 70 and 16 missing to date, could have been averted, had there been effective safety laws in place. Apart from the questionable history of ONGC in its reporting of accidents to the authorities concerned, now questions are being asked as to whether ONGC made adequate preparations to save the lives of people on board. ONGC is the premium institution nominated by Government of India for its offshore business and the cardinal question is: Is it protecting the lives of the experts and professionals it employs?
According to the official communiqué issued by ONGC, warning signals and advisories were notified as per the existing standard operating procedure (SoP) to all vessels, which started moving to safety locations, except for the captain of Barge 305. ONGC has shifted the responsibility for the disaster on the captain of the Barge. An inquiry has already been ordered by ONGC on why its order was ignored by the captain. However, that has also raised questions in relation to the ONGC’s health and safety laws.
ONGC, as one of the Navratna companies in India, has the responsibility to protect offshore activity and the lives of people working on its offshore platforms. Is it following the best practices in the industry, in comparison to other countries, which is being questioned now by international experts? Though cyclone is a natural catastrophe, its magnitude can be reduced, if timely information is disseminated, protective measures are implemented strictly and timely supervision is exercised properly. In this case, with the imminent arrival of the cyclone Tauktae, the best practice would be to shut down the offshore oil and gas field. The probe will need to establish if this was done or not.
The State-owned ONGC has earlier violated safety norms, including the safety of its sea-going vessels, according to the audit report published by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. According to the report presented in Parliament on July 17, 2019, ONGC had not even reported accidents within the 500-metre zone via its facilities or drilling rigs. The 2008 Oil and Gas Safety Rules (PNG) stipulate that ONGC is responsible for the safety within 500 metres of its installation and, according to this rule, must report safety incidents and accidents to the Oil Industry Safety Directorate. However, ONGC only reported 13 percent of the accidents in this zone in 2012-13 and 2016-17. It also created potential safety concerns with the use of ships without the problems being fixed. Since the cases were not reported to the concerned authority, the ships involved in such cases continued to be used for regular service, thereby risking the safety of persons working onboard and its installations. There are also widespread complaints about ONGC, which has also published tenders for ships with specifications that do not comply with the ship operation manual, which is an accepted guide to safe operation. According to the parliamentary standing committee on petroleum and natural gas, which tabled a report in the lower house in 2018, the total number of accidents at ONGC increased at an alarming rate due to violations of the SoP.
ONGC always claims high standards on health and safety and environment protection. However, it could not prevent the Mumbai High calamity though it had three days of warnings about an impending cyclone. While looking at the safety regime of the ONGC, only ONGC Videsh, which is a subsidiary of ONGC for international offshore activities, focuses on health, safety and environmental protection in the workplace in and around of its areas of application. It has implemented an “integrated policy on QHSE and risk management” that covers all related areas comprehensively. ONGC Videsh is certified for the integrated QHSE management system and complies with the revised international standards ISO 9001: 2015 (quality management system), ISO 14001: 2015 (environmental management system) and ISO 45001: 2018 (occupational health and safety management system). Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) system in 2012, which was further aligned with ISO 31000: 2009, a globally recognised standard for risk management, was also introduced by the ONGC Videsh. As these ISO standards are applicable only to foreign exploration of ONGC wing, the parent organisation has no such international rules and standards, though the parent organisation has the best talents hired from India.
Applicable Indian laws do not play a significant role to prevent such accidents, as they are not effective and not updated in order to meet such monstrous natural calamities. Specifically designed laws have not been legislated to regulate such offshore activities in comparison to UK or EU. Though there are general frameworks to cover the ambit of offshore work, it is not implemented effectively. The Constitution of India guarantees the occupational safety and health for everyone in our country. Articles 21, 24, 39 (e) & (f), and 47 provide for the basic framework, apart from a plethora of statutes like Mines Act 1952, the PNG Safety Rules, PNG Rules (Petroleum and Natural Gas Rules, and Oilfields Act.
India has also amended its maritime laws recently, but not extended their scope to cover the guarantee of the health and safety concerns of employees working in the offshore area. The Factories Act 1948 has come into force to ensure the safety of the workmen, but has still not been revised to incorporate the new risks arising out of the natural calamities ONGC has faced recently, though every industrial unit is required to frame safety manuals as per industrial standards. India has also signed various international treaties and covenants within the framework of ILO and WTO, but these do not exactly cover all the aspects relating to health hazards of offshore activities in the oil and gas industry.
The UK laws offer the most effective and workable solutions, though the Netherlands, Norway, Nigeria, South Africa, and a few South American countries do so as well. Other than the US, the UK has had traditional maritime strong bonds in offshore business activities. The UK has also introduced various stringent rules and regulations for the early detection or warning signals of dangerous situations, safety laws and also reporting of injuries and accidents in the workplace as well as offshore. UK’s Health and Safety at Work etc Act 974 is widely recognised as a landmark Act and called generally as six pack rules. The safety regime of UK includes:
- CMAPP (Corporate Major Accident Prevention Policy)
- SEMS (Safety and Environmental Management System)
- SECEs (Safety and Environmental Critical Elements)
- IERP (Internal Emergency Response Plan) PFEER & OPEP provisions together.
- Environmental information, Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015 (COMAH), and other stringent measures relating to maritime laws and oil/natural gas exploration laws.
The European Union has also, from time to time, updated its health and safety rules in this area of activity. Following the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, the European Commission (EC) expressed its first views on the safety of offshore oil and gas operations. The EC communication concluded that the existing divergent and fragmented legal framework for the safety of offshore oil and gas operations in Europe, as well as the current safety practices of the industry, do not provide sufficient security to those engaged in offshore activities.
In 2013, the European Commission pronounced another offshore directive to reduce the consequences of major accidents like the one on Mumbai’s high seas. In 2015, it implemented another directive for the regulation of offshore installation, called OSDR 2015, which called for a competent offshore authority.
It is high time India introduces stringent laws to regulate offshore activity in accordance with ISO standards and international rules and regulations. Being the offshore nominee of our country, the ONGC is accountable for the safety of its installations and those who man them. Apart from strengthening security measures, the areas that need tightening include proper training of contract workers; foolproof safety protocols for infrastructure—offshore/ barges/ships/helicopters—and strict measures against non compliance with the SoP. It also needs increased frequency of external security audits, the establishment of emergency centres and the formation of a unified security committee. The disaster on board Barge 305 provides enough urgency and impetus for such measures.
—The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court