Pascal Bates and Mark Davies in Shell offshore safety case

December 15, 2023

Pascal Bates had led Mark Davies on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive in a case against Shell UK Limited and Ampelmann Operations UK.

In order to access its North Sea gas rigs, Shell arranged for a specialist marine supply ship, mounted with a walk-to-work motion compensated gangway, to carry workers to and fro.  The gangway, designed by, made for, and leased out by Ampelmann, operated in concert with global positioning satellite data and a ‘dynamic positioning’ system for the ship to move rapidly in response to the relative movements of the ship and the rig being visited so as to provide a stable path for workers to walk from one to the other.  Part of the arrangements involved two booms which could telescope in and out so as constantly to bridge the changing extent of the gap between the ship and the rig.  Where the two booms met there was a step in the pathway.  Under the step was a modest gap to allow the two booms to clear one another.

On 17 October 2017 a group of maintenance men working for Shell were to transfer from the ship to Shell’s Galleon PG installation, more than 70 Km off the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coasts.  The transfer was allowed to proceed in the pre-dawn gloom, and despite high winds and heavy seas.  As the last man but one crossed, the gap between the ship and the rig reduced, causing the booms to telescope together.  The approaching step ran over the safety boots of both his feet trapping them under the step and inflicting very serious injuries which almost caused both to be amputated.

Shell and Ampelmann each denied breaching offshore safety requirements but, a month before a seven week trial had been set down to start, each admitted guilt.  Ampelmann, despite a design evolution underway from at least 2007 and going right up to 2017 in the fine tuning of the gangway and the parameters in which it could be used, failed expressly to set and control the gap under the step, such that the gangway in question had a gap which could be around 4cm, or more if a boot were pressing down on the surface of the pathway next to the step.  Johnson J. described Ampelmann’s offending as involving “basic errors which persisted for a long time”.

Shell, as operator of the installation, issued workers with safety instructions which Johnson J. described as “inconsistent and confusing and spread across several documents” and which he said were “not understood” by those undertaking the walk to work transfers.  Shell also failed to ensure that lighting was in accordance with long-standing guidance available on the HSE website.  These problems, the judge said, “were in place for a considerable time and were far from minor or isolated”.

Pascal Bates and Mark Davies, having negotiated the resolution of the case without a trial, continued to represent HSE at sentence, successfully arguing then as to the extent of each offender’s culpability and as to how Shell, as a very large organization, should be treated.  Shell was fined more than £1 million and Ampelmann, a much smaller company, more than £200,000.  Each was ordered to pay investigative and legal costs totaling just under £½ million, bringing the total bill for the offenders to more than £1.7 million.