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Oil worker Bjørn Tore Røshol fears that at least 100 people may have been exposed to the carcinogenic substance benzene without them even knowing about it.
Rolv Christian Topdahl: @rolvc Journalist: Published May 11, 2019
For the second time in five years, employees at Nyhamna gas treatment plant are warning about a fear culture and inadequate handling of the carcinogenic gas benzene.
Bjørn Tore Røshol hopes that Shell will take action. PHOTO: ROAR STRØM / NRK
– I am simply worried that colleagues and former employees will become ill because of what they are exposed to, says Bjørn ToreholRøshol.
The carcinogenic substance benzene has for many years been a hot topic at Shell’s land plant Nyhamna in Møre og Romsdal.
In 2014, the safety service and chief safety officer Runar Kjørsvik announced that employees had been exposed to dangerous amounts of benzene on the plant. He also warned about what he called a “fear culture” at Nyhamna. This was the start of a process that ended with Kjørsvik losing his job.
Now there has been a new notice from an employee at Nyhamna.
Bjørn Tore Røshol is currently working as a process technician at Shell, but has held positions of trust at Nyhamna for ten years. He took over as chief safety officer when Kjørsvik lost his job in 2015, a position Røshol had until October 2017.
Røshol believes that Shell does not take the benzene danger seriously – five years after the problem first came to light. He has sent the letter to the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway, the Norwegian Board of Health Supervision and the Office of the Auditor General – in addition to the employer Shell.
– I believe Shell must register all employees and contractors – both current and former – who have been exposed to benzene at work. I can’t think of anyone getting leukaemia, and without getting it approved as a work injury with the follow it gets, he says to NRK.
“Bar condensate in buckets”
Røshol thinks it can be about more than 100 people. In the letter, he describes everyday life at Nyhamna in the time before the benzene was put on the agenda.
“We dismantled valves and equipment where condensate flowed over the work benches, inside unventilated containers, with closed doors to keep warm. (…) The process operators carried condensate in buckets, “he writes in the letter.
Norwegian law requires that the employer keep a register of employees who are exposed to carcinogenic chemicals – a so-called KBM register. And this information must be kept for at least 60 years after the exposure is terminated, the regulation states.
Took two years
Already in 2014, Shell acknowledged that they lacked a strategy to map employees who had been exposed to benzene. This is reflected in the minutes from a meeting of the local working environment committee in December of the year in which, among other things, the management at Nyhamna and the main safety representative Kjørsvik were present.
But little was done with the case, according to Røshol. The warning case with Runar Kjørsvik created a lot of noise and the whole thing “boiled away in cabbage”.
Two years later, at a meeting of the Group Work Committee in Shell Norway, it was unanimously decided that a so-called KMB register should be established, which is a register of people who have been exposed to carcinogens, and so-called mutagenic substances and lead.
At the meeting, the senior management of Shell Norway participated, as well as the main safety delegates from Shell’s facilities.
During this period, according to Røshol, the protection service repeatedly demanded that employees and contractors from before 2016 also be registered.
– But this was counteracted by the company, which for us in the protection service was completely incomprehensible, he says.
– Flushed out of condensate This KMB register is currently in place at Nyhamna, but according to Røshol is still full of shortcomings.
– In order to get in the register, you must almost be washed down by condensate. And then, former employees are not registered, he says.
Røshol says he himself is still not registered.
Kitty Eide, Communications Manager for Operations and Projects in Shell Norway.PHOTO: ROAR HALTEN / NRK
According to communications manager for operations and project in Shell Norway, Kitty Eide, all incidents today are registered.
– Individuals who are involved are contacted by the company health service and the exposure is described in the individual’s health record and listed in the KMB register, she says.
Bellona: – Very sad Bellona’s leader, Frederic Hauge, thinks it’s an ugly thing.
“The way Shell has performed here is very sad,” he says.
– Benzene is something that people can get cancer and leukaemia many years later. If this is not subsequently registered, then there is a direct active action to avoid compensation claims. This is not random. This is part of a US governance model where it is important to avoid future claims for damages.
Communication manager Kitty Eide calls this a “gross and incorrect statement”. She believes Shell is completely dependent on previous employees reporting themselves.
– The arrangement before the KMB register came into place is based on a combination of the event register and records from the company health service. It is these journals that will be used to assess occupational injury. Then, as now, we are dependent on being notified of exposures, she says.
According to Eide, Shell has worked extensively on informing personnel about benzene exposure. She also says Shell in 2016 encouraged employees to report episodes that were behind in time.
– But we cannot rule out that people may have been exposed without reporting in our reporting system. Our company health service will, however, handle any inquiries about previous exposures, and assist the individual in mapping and documenting exposure and possibly registering specific cases, says Eide.
– But why did it take two years from Shell to acknowledge the lack of records until it was decided to create a registry?
– We were part of an industrial collaboration in Norwegian Oil and Gas that was to set uniform admission criteria for the register – and that work took time, says Eide.
Think the PSA has failed
Both Røshol and Hauge believe that the authorities have failed in the Nyhamna case. The Petroleum Safety Authority Norway (PSA) has had several inspections at Nyhamna in recent years. Røshol claims that the PSA before the audit in 2014 and 2015 received information about the benzene problem, but without this being included in the reports.
– I believe that the PSA in this case has only been involved in covering illegal activities, says Hauge.
Press contact in the PSA, Øyvind Midttun, responds to the comment from the Bellona leader.
– What interest should we have in covering? The claim falls on its own unfairness. For many years, we have been working to raise awareness of chemical risk and for the industry to improve in this area. This also applies to Nyhamna, says Midttun.
He believes the PSA always takes input from employees and safety service seriously.
– When we are supervised, we always talk to the protection service and employees. We take this information with us, but it is not always the case again in the reports.
Midttun confirms that the PSA has received the notification of concern from Røshol.
– In general, I can say that the PSA has had close follow-up of Nyhamna for a long time. Chemical health hazards and benzene exposure have also been a topic of supervision by Norske Shell, and the company has, after our audit, made surveys and established KMB register, he says.
– Not good enough knowledge Midttun believes that the PSA’s audit shows that the oil industry’s work on chemicals offshore and on land facilities is of a high standard.
At the same time, he points out that many of the companies have not had enough knowledge about how much personnel are exposed to benzene.
– Supervision activity has shown that the companies are not always as good at mapping and assessing the chemical working environment, says Midttun, who points out that there is no requirement for post-registration in an KMB register.
“But the companies should strive to do this from the time the claim was made in 2001,” he says.
Was not interviewed
In January, the OAG presented its investigation report on the PSA’s work. The OAG concluded that the PSA had done its job with regard to Nyhamna.
Monday there will be consultation on the report at the Storting. The politicians will then have until 11 June to come up with a recommendation.
Røshol thinks it is strange that the Office of the Auditor General never interviewed him or other former chief safety representatives and union representatives at Nyhamna.
– The Office of the Auditor General has, in its investigation, found much, but nothing at Nyhamna. We know why. No one has brought anything new to the table. The OAG has seen the same documentation as the PSA in its time, claims Røshol. The OAG entrusted the trade unions Safe and the Leaders to point out who they should talk to by the local union representatives at Nyhamna. This is the opinion of the national auditor Per-Kristian Foss to NRK.
– The two unions have represented both central and local union representatives from Nyhamna in meetings with the OAG. These are the ones we have dealt with in the conduct of the survey, and they have answered on behalf of the unions about the condition at Nyhamna when we talked to them, during the period February to March 2018, says Foss.
In the survey, the Office of the Auditor General found that there had been problems with mapping of working environment risk at Nyhamna. But the OAG believes this was followed up by the PSA in supervision in 2015.
In the notification letter, Røshol also writes that there is still a fear culture at Nyhamna, just as Runar Kjørsvik and the protection service notified in 2014.
Røshol himself has been on sick leave since March 2018. – I still go for treatment for stresses and stress that I experienced as a safety delegate, he says.
Kitty Eide in Shell Norway says the company does not hide the fact that there have been challenges with the tripartite cooperation at Nyhamna.
– This has both the management and employee representatives worked thoroughly with, and we are now experiencing good cooperation. We must have an inclusive working environment where everyone can safely say their opinion. We have annual employee surveys that show that the majority of Nyhamna experience such an open culture, but also that there are still some who do not. We take this seriously, she says.
Nyhamna is a land facility for processing and exporting gas in Aukra municipality in Møre og Romsdal. Gassco is today the operator of the plant, while Shell is the so-called technical service provider. PHOTO: SHELL