Ohs in Australian Offshore Petroleum Industry

Subject: Workforce
Pages: 10
Words: 2767
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: PhD


The tragic death of two workers on duty in a gas driller off the victoria’s Southwest coast has sparked responses from the Australian Council of Trade union. This has called for harmonising of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Laws (Offshore Energy Today, 2012). The two workers died during drilling process in the Stena Clyde rig. Though the police force has started investigations into the death, the Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) has led renewed efforts for the extension of occupational health and safety standard to offshore drilling industry in each state. Through the union secretary, ACTU has harmonised of offshore OHS because the existing standard covering worker differ depending on the state. The union observes that the harmonisation of the health standard help reduce the number work-related fatalities (Offshore Energy Today, 2012).

Quest for harmonisation of health safety standards in the Australia began after the Montara and Macodo incidents. To date, states and territories have the mandate to formulate and enforce their own health and safety laws. This has resulted to differences in details and application of laws from one state and territory to another. The differences in health and safety standards have elicited reactions from the workers union in Australia calling for national harmonization of OHS laws. The union is demanding development of a nationally consistent OHS model that will be applicable across all industries in Australia (Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, 2012).

Safety issues in Australian offshore petroleum industry

Initially, the National Offshore Petroleum Authority (NOPSA) administered the regulation of safety issues in Australia. This role was passed over to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety, and Environmental Managements Authority (NOPSEMA) early lasts year. NOPSEMA is charged with the responsibility of developing health and safety frameworks that are aimed at improving the working environment of offshore petroleum industry in Australia (National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority (NOPSEMA), 2012). The body is also mandated to administer safety laws and manage encourage environment management. NOPSEMA also works with the petroleum industry stakeholders and other authorities to maintain and ensure that safety and environmental issues are controlled efficiently.

Basing on the primary role of NOPSEMA, the body enforces the general legislations that mirror the requirements provided by the Commonwealth legislation. In its mandate, NOPSEMA promotes the occupational health and safety of offshore petroleum workers employed by offshore petroleum industry in Australian waters. The operators are also required to submit their safety and risk management measures to the regulator. The regulator assesses these safety standards and can either accept or reject them and demand revisions. Once the regulator accepts operators’ safety management system, the operator should strictly follow the regulations to the letter (National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority, 2012).

The operators of different facilities are subject to two safety legislative regimes. These regimes by the year 2008 were NOPSA and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). As per this time, NOPSA was mandated to administer offshore petroleum safety “legislation in the State and Commonwealth waters with the aim of regulating OHS standards and principles of reducing risks” (Bills & Agostini, 2009, para 2). According to Bills and Agostini (2009), AMSA deals with ensuring the safety of ship in the offshore petroleum industry. This two regulators played complementary roles.

There has been considerable progress in the safety standard within the offshore petroleum industry in Australia of late. This is attributed to the formation of NOPSEMA and the strengthening of the regulator’s mandate. However, the impact of the regulations on the safety of working environment in rigs is not exhaustive. The period before the formation NOPSEMA witnessed two events that revealed on how unprepared some facilities are with regard to safety measures.

Offshore safety in the recent past

According to the reports released by NOPSA in its annual report of the offshore petroleum industry, the number of facilities has been increasing from the year 2005. The report noted that the prevalence of injuries at the facilities had declined since the year 2005. According to NOPSEMA (2012), the health and safety standard at the facilities are categorized as injuries, accidents and dangerous occurrences, and complaints. The rate of these occurrences is calculated with the number of hours in consideration. Accidents and dangerous occurrences are classified as disease, accidents and dangerous occurrences or near misses that are traced at the workplace. Furthermore, complaints from workers are considered as a measure to check the degree of compliance to health and safety standards in the offshore petroleum operators.

There has been a reduction in the number of injuries at the workplace in the last seven years. This attributed to the stringent health and safety legislation enforced by NOPSA after its formation in the year 2005. There have been no fatalities reported caused by injuries to the workers in the recent years within the offshore petroleum industry. However, majority the injured workers have hard to seek medical treatment for the injuries and statistics reveal a general increase in the number of medical treatments due to injuries. The number of injuries leading loss of workings days have stabilised is the last seven years (NOPSEMA, 2012).

The number of accidents and dangerous occurrences (incidents) reported between the year 2005 to 2008 increased steadily. In the year 2005 to 2006, the number of death resulting from serious injuries was four and accidents leading to incapacitation stood at twenty-four cases. However, the number of death from injuries at the facilities increased to six cases in 2006-2007, and 7 in the year 2007-2008. Human performance difficulties are cited as the cause of increase in the number of accidents at the workplace (NOPSEMA, 2012).

According to report by NOPSEMA (2012), dangerous occurrences are classified variously. This includes those that cause death or injury and those that can cause incapacitation of the worker. It also includes unrestrained hydrocarbon releases, uninhibited petroleum liquid emissions, and well kicks among others. Unplanned events, safety-critical equipment damage and substantial risk of accidents are also included in this category. The prevalence of dangerous occurrences has significantly increased since the year 2005. The categories of dangerous occurrences that have increased significantly overs the last seven years include unplanned events, damage to safety-critical equipment, causing death or serious injury, and fire or explosions (NOPSEMA, 2012). In the year 2005-2006, the number of dangerous occurrences stood at 174 cases. This number slightly increased to 177 in the following year. The year 2007-2008 witnessed the rise in the numbers of dangerous occurrence that stood at 299. The sharp increase in incidents and dangerous occurrences is largely blamed on the damage of safety-critical equipment and unplanned events (NOPSEMA, 2012).

The number of complaints about the safety of the workplaces has increased in recent years. The workers majorly complain about the working environment with regard to noise, heat and pollution. Additionally, a lot of complains are about poor work methods and practices, poor state of safety equipment, and follow-up of safety issues. These issues are treated as concerns that needed to be benchmarked with other OHS regulations of the onshore industries (NOPSEMA, 2012).

From the year 2008 to 2010, NOPSA in collaboration AMSA, investigated various safety incidents and revealed that OHS law were broken the operators of facilities. An accident caused the death of one crewmember during the year 2008 in the Teekay Karratha Spirit facility. The accident can be attributed to poor emergency response at workplaces. During this incident, one crewmember succumbed to injuries because the facility was unable to obtain urgent medical service when the accident happened.

Management failure is also blamed for the increase in the number of incidences in the offshore petroleum industry. Therefore, many incidences have happened in the last seven years are largely attributed to complacence on the part of the management. An example of such incidences is the Castoro Otto construction vessel that was that nearly capsized due to the intense cyclone. The crewmembers managed to retrieve two anchors, and the cyclone unanchored the remaining two. The vessel sailed afterwards without any difficulties. However, upon investigation, it was found out that the management lacked proper information about the weather condition and the facility had poor internal and external communication. The investigation also revealed that the management lack adequate preparation and procedure during emergency moments.

Equipment failure is another major contributor to accident at the workplace in the offshore industry. The Stena Clyde and Jabiru venture incidences of 2008, Esso-Cobia and McDermott-Derrick Barge 30 of 2009, and Songa-Songa Venus incidence of 2010 are good examples of equipment failure that caused accidents at the workplace in Australia offshore industry. In both cases, the accidents happened due to the failure of the equipment that the workers were operating.

Lack of training of worker on safety measures, inadequate supervision, inadequate provision of information to worker regarding equipment operation, lack of safety awareness, and failure to implement emergency response plan contribute to increasing the number of accidents at the workplace. Through investigation, it was found that the Sedco-703 and Songa-Songa Venus incidents of 2008 were caused by the above factors. NOPSA fixed these factors to the cause of accidents that hit NorCE Offshore-Nor Australia construction vessel twice in the year 2010.

Onshore industries recent safety

The onshore petroleum and gas industries health and safety in Australia is legislated by states and Northern territories. The onshore industries OHS covers all companies operating on the mainland as opposed to offshore petroleum industry whose OHS is determined and administered by NOPSEMA. The rate of facility inspection of onshore companies is much higher than the rate of facility inspection. During the year 2010-2011, over ninety per cent of facilities of onshore petroleum industries were complete. On the other hand, the inspection of facilities inspected for the same period was incomplete. The inspection is meant to check the compliance to the health and safety regulations. Moreover, from the statistics of the inspection, it was revealed that most of the onshore facilities meet safety standards as compared to offshore petroleum industry facilities. The inspection focuses on safety-critical equipment maintenance, standard performance compliance, emergency response system, and risk management.

The number of work-related death and injuries in Australia’s onshore industries were on the rise from the year 2003 (Safe Work Australia, 2012). However, Australia recorded two hundred and sixteen deaths at work in the 2009-2010. This was the only time that Australia recorded the least number of deaths at the workplace since 2003. The agricultural, construction, and transport industries recorded the majority of death within this period. The number of deaths at the workplace averaged at 282 workers per year from the year 2003 to 2009 (Safe Work Australia, 2012). Most of these deaths are caused by work-related traumatic injury. Out of the total number of 216 people who died in the year 2009-2010, sixty-four per cent died from injuries they sustained at the workplace; over twenty per cent died due to accident injuries sustained while travelling from work and twelve per cent died as a result of someone else’s work activity (Safe Work Australia, 2012). By August 2012, 122 workers had died due to accidents and injuries sustained at the work place. Transport industry leads the list by thirty-six workers who have died so far. Agriculture, construction, and manufacturing have contributed to fifty-four worker who have died this year (Safe Work Australia, 2012).

Current OHS legislative and regulatory environment

The legislation and regulations of offshore petroleum activities in Australia began in early 1960s after the discovery of petroleum in the Bass Strait (Hunter, 2011). There has been tension about the proper legislation and regulation between the States and Northern Territory with the Commonwealth after signing into force the Petroleum Agreement of 1967 (Hunt, 1989). Following the tension about the regulation and legislation of offshore petroleum, the court vested sovereign rights over the Australian territorial seas and continental shelf to Commonwealth.

The National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority was established in 2005. This organisation helped ease the tension that had existed previously among the Northern Territory States and the Commonwealth. The formation of NOPSA brought about increased cooperation between Commonwealth and Northern Territory States in the regulation of the maritime territories (Bills & Agostini, 2009). Currently, the legislation and regulation of the offshore petroleum is guided by the Offshore Constitutional Settlement (OCS) agreement that was negotiated between Northern Territory and the Commonwealth. OCS prescribes separate but jurisdictional cooperation between the two bodies. OCS is enacted through the Commonwealth and State Petroleum Acts. Under the OCS agreement, the commonwealth regulations cover “waters seawards of three nautical miles to the outer edge of Australian maritime zone” (Hunter, 2011, p. 70). According to Hunter (2011), outer edge can “either the Exclusive Economic Zone, 200 nautical miles from the mean low water mark or the edge of the Continental Shelf” (p. 70). On the other hand, the States are entitled to regulate offshore petroleum industry in the first three nautical miles seaward from the coastal waters. Furthermore, the States or Northern Territories have exclusive legislative rights to regulate water within the State. These waters categories include bays and estuaries (Bills & Agostini, 2009). These two events have led to two regimes of law regulating the offshore petroleum industry. State and Northern Territories administer their legislation on offshore petroleum through State and Territory authorities. On the other hand, Commonwealth legislation only applies to waters under the Commonwealth jurisdiction. The figure shown represents waters that are under Commonwealth jurisdiction and legislation.


The legislation and regulation of the offshore petroleum industry base on an interactive cooperation between the States and Territories and the Commonwealth. Designated Authority (DA) and Joint Authority (JA) jointly do the legislation on OHS. The DA represents the States or Territory while the JA is a commonwealth minister. There are several regulators of the offshore petroleum industry (Hunter, 2011). The Australian Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism (RET) regulates offshore petroleum activities in the States and Northern Territories. On the other hand, NOPSEMA regulates both Commonwealth and State and Territories waters. NOPSEMA is charged with responsibility of enforcing OHS legislation in the offshore petroleum facilities. The organ is also mandated to promote OHS by developing effective OHS standards and regulations that are supposed to be used in the offshore petroleum industry (Hunter, 2011).

The formation of NOPSEMA and the cooperation of States and Commonwealth have enabled NOPSEMA to structure health and safety standards are the offshore petroleum industry. These laws are applied across Australian states with an exception of Western Australia that has been allowed to act as OHS regulator of offshore petroleum. However, NOPSEMA laws have been enacted in states of Western Australia, South Australia, Northern Territory, and Victoria. In the states of New South Wales, Tasmania, and Queensland, the NOPSEMA rules are not yet in full force (Hunter, 2011).

Harmonization of OHS

There is an urgent need to harmonize the health and safety laws and regulation to only one national law across Australia. This is due to the continuous incidents of health and safety concerns that have occurred recently (Georgiou, Harrison & Iverson, 2012). The recent death of two workers at Stena Clyde and other incidents serve as outstanding examples as to why the harmonisation of the OHS is necessary. It should be noted that, at the present, OHS laws and regulation differ significantly from one State to another. The rationale for the harmonisation is because many companies in Australia operate in more than one territory or state (Georgiou, Harrison & Iverson, 2012). Therefore, having varied OHS laws and regulation is ideally not acceptable. This is because companies may make use of loopholes in different states not to provide safe working conditions to workers.

The current situation allows managers of companies found liable of breach of OHS standard in different states to face different liability levels. Individual liability is severe in some states compared to others. Furthermore, the penalties vary significantly from one state to another. Based on these differences, the proposed harmonisation should continue. The harmonisation of the OHS regulation is crucial in the elimination of differences in regulations of health and safety standards thereby helping reduce the confusion and compliance issues resulting from the present OHS regimes (Georgiou, Harrison & Iverson, 2012).


The safety of workers at the workplace is critical to any organisation in the world. It is an issue of exceptional importance to have an efficient and well-run safety system at the workplace. Therefore, there is a need to develop a standard OHS across Australia to ensure that all companies comply with a standardised set of heath and safety standards. This is not only aimed at helping reduce the occurrence of accidents, but also the cost of operating businesses.


Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association 2012, 2010-11 Health, safety & Safety Report, Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association,

Bills, K & Agostini, D 2009, Offshore petroleum safety regulation: Better practices and effectiveness of National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority.

Georgiou, M, Harrison, S & Iverson, C 2012, OHS Harmonisation: current state of play. Web.

Hunt, C 1989, The offshore petroleum regimes of Canada and Australia, Canadian Institute of Resources Law, Calgary.

Hunter, T 2011, “Australian offshore petroleum regulation after the Varanus Island explosion and the Montara blowout– drowning in a sea of federalism”, Australian & New Zealand Maritime law Journal, vol. 25 no. 1, pp. 70-85.

National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority (NOPSEMA) 2012, National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority.

Offshore Energy Today, 2012, Stena Clyde Incident: Offshore workers demand improved OHS Laws. Web.

Safe Work Australia, 2012, Work-related traumatic injury fatalities: Australia Safe Work. Web.