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The Big Burn: Saluting the Bravery of Early Forestry Workers

Currently on Netflix is a documentary about the forest fires that devastated North Western areas of the USA in 1910.  I like to connect our understanding of health and safety with those that gave us the knowledge we enjoy. The program is a salute to early forestry workers and their incredible bravery when they fought The Big Burn.

After a season of 1000s of fires the newly formed forestry service thought they had contained the worst of them. Back then there were only about 500 such rangers working to establish an idea of conservation in rugged public lands. Their efforts were often resented by miners and loggers who knew that these backwoods were not theirs to work, but a long tradition gave them a sense of entitlement.

President Teddy Roosevelt, a big time fan of the wilderness, saw the need to preserve natural resources for the future. In the early 20th century unregulated production of timber was slowly exhausting the vast forests and the effects of mining were poisoning it. Enter young men dispatched to tame the disorderly industries that relied on nature.

Some of these guys had a patch of 300 square miles. In there could be boom towns with accompanying violence. In the woods were few roads and a scattered group of operators understandably after profit for hard work. Government interference was not a flavour they took to.

Trains belched smoke and sparks as they thundered through the wilderness. Storms would spit lightening out of the skies and steam machinery in the woods threatened to ignite the world all around.

The summer of 1910 was a dry season. The fires that spread were combated by men with days of hiking to do before tackling them. There were no respirators, no air support or for that matter no special tools.

charred trees and workers in 1910 surveying the burnt forest.
The fires left scars on the land clearly visible today.

They did understand how to create fire breaks and until the 19/20th August they were doing well.  They had to appeal for federal funds to recruit men just for the purpose but it was crucial work. In the valleys that were surrounded by these dense forests were wooden towns. Worse, this still being a frontier type environment, a lot of the settlements were constructed out of canvas and tar paper. As embers fell it took little to see a town go up like a gigantic firework.

Nature Ups the Stakes and Creates the Big Burn

The worst thing that could happen took place that August. A storm accompanied by 70 mile an hour winds. The programme concentrates on an area around Wallace, Idaho, but in the end 3 million acres were incinerated. That is about half the size of the UK.


black and white showing the ruis of a western town after the flames went through it.
What was left of Wallace. Women, children and the elderly escaped just in time. The men were left to do what they could.

87 people, mainly firefighters, were caught in flames that progressed faster than a horse could run. They were high in the hills and overtaken. Many more were injured. Buffalo Soldiers saved one town in a titanic effort after they were trapped. Other places, Wallace among them, were evacuated by rail at the last moment.

The bravery of those people puts us to shame when we complain about trivial events.  The survivors hid in mine workings or stumbled frantically out of the path of the flames. Lives were destroyed yet out of the charred aftermath came positive things

What We Know Now About Forest Fires

Apart from the progress in firefighting and safety came an understanding of the wilderness. Ironically we now know that without occasional fires, the forests themselves suffer. Nature has its way sometimes and it is better left to it where possible.

Have a watch of this PBS production if you get a chance. All our safety started with heroics and mistakes and to all that went before  I am grateful.

Take care,

Chris Hodge


Wood Group Wins Decommissioning Contract.

Further to the piece I did last week, Wood Group continues to work with Shell in the North Sea. They have just announced they have the contract to decommission the Brent Bravo platform.

I was writing about the future of this line of oil and gas work recently and further evidence of the opportunities now pops up on my news feed. Click Here  

map showing Brent field NorthEast North Sea
Iconic Brent Platforms on their way out after 40 years service.

Wood Group, CEO Dave Stewart, said, ‘We have over four decades of experience supporting Shell’s Brent field and this new contract clearly demonstrates our client’s trust in our consistent delivery of innovative and efficient technical services that have been designed for offshore decommissioning challenges.’

The plan is to prep the platform for a single lift removal. This continues the Shell trend of beginning the onerous and absolutely massive headache of clearing up redundant operations. This multi billion pound task will take up to ten years.

The iconic Brent field rigs were built in the 1970s and at one time produced 10% of Britain’s North Sea oil. The field underwent an extensive upgrade in the 90s which extended production, but all good things have to come to an end.

The best of good planning to all involved in the decommissioning.


Chris Hodge

Source article;  World Oil. Click here

Guardian article Click here

When it Comes to Health and Safety, What is Going on in France?

I know well that statistics can be manipulated to prove almost any point.  So when I was looking at the provisional total of fatal workplace injuries  I was aware of the variables.  I scanned the figures for 2015/16 and was pleased to see there had not  been an increase in incidents. It was as I looked at an EU comparison I found something curious. When it comes to health and safety, what is going on in France?

I had made a presumption that the relatively wealthy nations would score well and those moving up financially would lag behind. I was wrong, at least wrong because of France.

The British figures for 2015/16 will be confirmed in July this year, however, the average is taken over 5 years so we can lean on that.   Obviously if a single horrific incident fatally injures a large number of workers the average would spike, hence that 5 year standard. Currently 2015/16 here is projected to stand at 0.42 per 100,000 while the 5 year average is 0.52.

When I delved into the EU figures over the last decade the British safety record compares very well with other nations. All EU nations have seen a steady reduction in fatalities, without exception, but many of them had a worse record than we had to start with. For example if we look at the deaths that occurred in 1996/97 our 5 year average is half what it was back then.  However, France? I still don’t get it

France keeps company with Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and is one place behind the Czech Republic. In 2013/14 ( the last Eurostat figures I could find) France returns a rate of 2.94 deaths per 100,000  workers, with an average that is slightly higher over previous years.

Again I know that figures can vary but there was no apparent spike that year.  France is the 5th biggest world economy, they built the Eiffel Tower I mean they are sensible people overall so what is going on? No comfort is to be found in the figures for none fatal injuries either, they topped the table there with rivalry from Portugal and Spain.

Naturally enough the rate in which injuries required time off work was also high. In the same period 1.4 per 100,000 workers needed time off after injury in the UK whereas across The Channel 3.1 were laid up.

In conclusion I can find no reason for the increased risk to workers in France. This obvious issue is hardly mentioned. Across the board in the EU figures France stands out time and time again when it comes to injuries to workers. Across nationalities if say one nation was working in great numbers in France and their home figures showed large numbers of worker injuries then you could say that bad practise had been imported. That isn’t the case, however, because going back to 2002 ( before major EU worker movement) the UK still had less than a 3rd of the fatal accidents its neighbour had.

My own opinion from this brief study is that so long as a single worker is killed or seriously injured then there are no laurels to be awarded to the UK or anyone else. That said I think we apply safety legislation and standards better than many countries. Globally a rate of 20 plus per 100,000 is sadly not unusual so in comparison criticising EU nations seems a bit silly. However, once you factor in the financial stability ( and while we are at it the political stability) of France with the worst record holders world wide their death rate is still best described as concerning. Yet there is no concern to be found. Unfortunately for now I will have to leave it there. I will keep digging  and let you know if I find the golden variable that explains this apparent issue. Meanwhile working in France? Take care.

Below are some of the references I found on this subject and as always I would be interested in your comments.


Chris Hodge.

International comparison of work place deaths 2002 Click here

HSE European Stats Click here

Eurostats Click here

HSE Fatal injuries Click here

Comparison stats I found looking at the USA and UK. We still come out better. No celebration just interesting. Click here 

Shell Optimistic About Their Slimmer North Sea Operation

Various bits and pieces of the media have reported on the 140% increase in profit claimed by Shell this week. Shell’s financial chief, Jessica Uhl,  said the North Sea remains important even though streamlining in future will leave the company with less of a presence in the area.

Since writing this , as of today, it looks like the deal has gone through. Click here.

This follows the January sale of half  its UK production assets to to Chrysaor for upwards of $3 billion. According to the Chrysaor website the deal has not quite been finalised but looks on course to make this independent player one of the biggest in the UK.

picture of a platform and a link to Chrysaor.
Chrysaor talk positive about their role. Click above to link to their website.

Of course that is not necessarily great news for the return of the jobs lost. When the deal was announce Phil Kirk, Chrysaor chief executive said:

‘Chrysaor is acquiring a high quality package of assets which combine low cost production, a substantial reserves and resources base with strong cash flows and a highly competent and skilled workforce. These assets, combined with our own experience and the outstanding team who will transfer from Shell, provide an excellent platform for change and growth in the North Sea.’

After dealing with any health and safety issues, words like strong cash flows are what I want to hear, however, we will have to see where that cash flow goes if indeed it ever comes back with any strength at all. Much has been made of the rally in oil prices over the last year but globally oil stocks are still high and continue to threaten uncertainty in the barrel price.

In comparison the development of gas production off Shetland is more encouraging and of course Shell has a big hand there. Broadening the picture slightly is the interest the company has in deep water projects off the Brazilian coast.

1700 people in the North East Scotland and will be subject of this Shell/ Chrysaor deal. Maybe the first indicator of real confidence will be if all of them retain their jobs when the transaction is completed in the second half of this year.


Chris Hodge

For one of the source articles, Click here

A Building is a Building Right? Not When it Comes to Renovation.

Preserving our building heritage is not only a worthy endeavour but it can be financially rewarding. It is not cheap to renovate  or restore the structures of the past and when you are dealing with a large ancient pile there are specialist health and safety issues to be considered. You can go from working on an ultra modern project, like the ones I have tackled recently, to the resurrection of a 19th century mill, but don’t take the task lightly.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

We don’t want them to fall down that is the point of renovation but a key to safe working is realising that what went up, went up in a very different way to how it would go up today. Get it wrong and it can come down fast. I was working with a friend on a 18th century cottage when I first came across our ancestors way of making the exterior walls solid. They built the walls and filled the gaps with rubble.  As you remove the outer skin of carefully placed blocks you come to a vertical slag heap. Over time the fist sized stones have settled and gravity can give the unwary the idea of permanence. In fact it is like playing Jenga after betting your hands. If you take out the wrong point, at the wrong time, it leads to ‘shuttering’ and boy you need to get out of the way quickly, literally the lot can come down.

picture of an old mill in need of renovation.
Click here for the full article on health and safety working on old buildings. Picture from the article.


We were putting a door in at the time, one that would lead to a conservatory. It did get done but not before  a lot of dust had carried off a lot of cursing.

On several other projects I would stand back and wonder how they hoisted quarter ton slabs of stone into a tight corner or an elaborate block up and out on a gable end.

Later Additions, Modern Headaches

Sometimes the rules about what you can and cannot do with an old building are frustrating I know, however, they have brought some benefits. Back in the day if you had a dusty and neglected warehouse you could add what you liked to it. Indeed you could also rip out what you wanted, block staircases off, fill in windows and install whatever materials you liked.

The problem with the free hand that you had in the 50s and 60s was that roof access could be restricted and asbestos was used as additional construction was undertaken without any thought for the future.

It is almost as though you need a thorougher understanding of how to build the old way before you can adapt a building to operate in the modern age. There is a good reason it seems this way and that is because it is that way. When it comes to health and safety and old buildings…We need to understand the game just the same as the designers and builders on these renovation projects.

Safety and Efficiency

In that order, but as I always say though the principle of safe working first is not negotiable only a dreamer could last in this industry without realising you have to be innovative and aware of the operational needs of the client. This is doubly so in projects involving ancient buildings. One man who really seems to have a grasp of this field is James Woolgrove. I recently re-read an article in which he tells Health and Safety magazine about the unique challenges of these sort of projects. I would recommend it to anyone who is thinking of operating in this area of expertise.

I will always remember that first taste of old time wall building not because that made me an expert, but because it taught me a principle. The tools and some of the working practises might not have changed much but the attitude, materials and problem solving of years ago can throw you a health and safety curve ball unless you are aware of them.

Full article in Health and Safety magazine Click Here

Australian Company Gets its Own Shock in the Pocket.

From building new projects to recovering a truck in the frozen north on a dark snow swept night, if you hear or see power lines stop and have a good think.  There are times I write and try hard not to let smug hindsight creep in.  However, when it comes to injury caused by electricity leaping from power lines hindsight has nothing to do with it. In the news today is a case in point, WGA Pty Ltd has 28 days to lodge an appeal against a fine of 1 million Australian dollars.

In 2014 they were given advice about the risks of working near a 33,000 volt power line that served the Illawarra train line in New South Wales. The residential construction that they were working  on in South Hurstville, Sydney, was at the point of having aluminium window frames fitted. Initial reports in The Leader suggested that a 49 year old installer had been moving a section of frame and it hit the nearby cables. In the report of the enquiry in The Construction Index today it states that the power arched to strike the framework and the worker received 30% burns.

Hillside shot down to the sea on the right showing the rail line and overhead cables.
This picture shows another section of the line with the power line layout. Take from Wikipedia thanks to Klaus-Dieter Liss

It was shown that a  SafeWork NSW inspector and Sydney Trains had given the firm plenty of advice about working safely on the exterior of the apartment block. Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Matt Kean praised SafeWork for bringing the prosecution. He also said the case highlighted the need for safe working around power cables. It was 2014, we should have learned by then, shouldn’t we?


Chris Hodge

Full article Click Here

For more case study articles see the below:

The Worst Health and Safety Fail that Looked Safe. Click here

‘It Will Be Right’ Trench walls and excavators increase the risk. Click here

It Will Be Right. Firm Fined After Worker Buried in Trench Collapse

I hope my meagre attempts to highlight failings in health and safety convey my intentions. Each incident shows what can go wrong, each incident is a lesson and a reminder. I work for firms and work with people who have a job to do. My job is to minimise the risks. Articles like this are not about hammering errant operators or criticising mistakes with the full force of hindsight. I just hope that by expanding the reach of tragic cases we can collectively prevent them happening again. This one is a case of ‘ It will be right.’

A nine foot deep trench that was being dug for drainage collapsed on a worker as he was guiding an excavator. The 43 year old was working for Wallace Roofing & Building Ltd who are based in Fife, Scotland. The drainage was needed to connect a new extension on an old property but the job was obstructed by a large boulder. The worker got down and was guiding the excavator when the unsupported wall caved in. Colleagues managed to dig him clear enough to breath until emergency services arrived.  His injuries included a puncture to both lungs.

It took 6 years to get the ruling and a fine of £14,000 was imposed. A Unite spokesman, Steven Dillon, criticised the fine on the grounds that it was too small to send a strong enough message. I don’t disagree with him in principle, however, my concern is more simple. Trench walls can collapse, we know this. The older ones amongst us need to tell the youngsters and we should have it in our minds moment to moment.  In addition to the risk posed by the trench walls here a digger was added. The extra weight and vibration should have sounded alarm bells.

‘It Will Be Right’

I admire a can do spirit. Really I am in awe sometimes of the people who put things up and dig things down, but into many is set this attitude of ‘ It will be Right.’ Weight, vibration and an unstable, unsupported trench or tunnel…don’t get in it and don’t let anyone else get in it. It won’t always be right.’


Chris Hodge

Full article Click Here

See similar case study articles:

Water Risks. The Worst Health and Safety Fail that looked Safe. Click here

Australian Firm Fined for Power Line Injuries. Click here

The Worst Health and Safety Fail That Looked Safe

That is a bold statement and to be honest I would accept arguments on other cases without much protest. For me, the worst health and safety fail that looked safe happened to Archie Tyler in 2001.

Mr Tyler was a watershed maintenance worker in the Bronx, New York. This 43 year old guy was dispatched with colleagues to the Jerome Park Reservoir.  Jerome Park is in the Bronx and the reservoir is about a football field in size. It was built in 1906 as part of the water supply system for the New Croton Aqueduct.

Aerial Google shot of Jerome Park water and surrounding urban housing.
Thanks to Google maps, all rights reserved. Jerome Park where Archie Tyler died while just doing a routine job.

By the time Mr Tyler arrived on that awful day the water was about 2 feet deep and it was seen as a risk. Not that it seemed a risk to the workers. The concern was that mosquitoes would breed and spread the West Nile River Virus. At 08.30 am the three man crew took to a small boat and paddled out to where the central drain was located. This had become clogged with debris and needed clearing. Mr Tyler got out of the boat and using a rake began to move the obstruction.

The drain, which had no grating, led to a 20 inch pipe. Once it was cleared the water surged into the new opening.

So there was the scene. Mr Tyler was held by his colleagues as the pressure tried to force him into the pipe. What could they do? They were in a boat and could lend no purchase, the bottom of the reservoir was algae covered and slippery.

Fire service personnel found Mr Tyler’s body when they accessed the drain via a maintenance hatch. He had been sucked down 15 feet and then into a connecting pipe, he had then been dragged 200ft until his body was lodged at a bend.

Union local President Ed Bennett said, ‘ If you saw the drain and the water, you really wouldn’t expect that cleaning the drain could put your life at risk. Still, DEP ( Department of Environmental Protection) had a responsibility to evaluate the job for any possible hazards, which could have prevented this tragedy.’

The Tragic Fact: Water, Fire, Weight, Height and Electricity Kill

It is the terrible consequence of being taken into that pipe that haunts me a little bit. I am not going to speculate on exactly what happened after Mr Tyler went under. I have looked for the findings of the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau investigation and I cannot locate it online. At the time the local DEP were criticised for not providing a tripod support for harnesses and for providing no information about the risks involved ahead of time. I can’t comment on if they were finally found at fault. I can say that in 2 foot of water nothing usually looks dangerous.

Now I have heard this story of course my approach would be cautious.  Unfortunately that is how health and safety has progressed. Our own safety has often been assured because of people like Archie Tyler. Honestly speaking? If I had been on that crew on that day in 2001, I might have been the one with the rake, all the while thinking, ‘ This won’t take long.’


Chris Hodge

References: Local Union article Click Here 

New York Times article Click Here 

Here are some other case study articles.

Australian Firm Fined 1m Aus Dollars. Click here

‘It Will Be Right’ Trench walls and excavators increase the risk. Click here


Family Deals with the Tragedy of Missing Oil Worker

Currently the search is still on for a 49 year old North Sea oil worker who has not been seen since 21.20 hours on Tuesday. Steve Sutherland was operating on the Noble Lloyd Noble installation, 90 miles miles east of Shetland.

picture of a middle aged man smiling into the camera
‘Steve is a much-loved and well-respected father, grandfather, partner, son, brother and uncle, adored by his children Morgan, Lenah and son Joe, and doted on by his four grandchildren.

There appears to be no suspicious circumstances and his disappearance is not linked to a workplace incident at this time. The larger scale search was scaled back on Wednesday and his next of kin have been paying tribute to the much loved Aberdeen man.

Det Insp Norman Stevenson, who is leading a team of officers flown out to the rig said: ‘An extensive search has been carried out which has involved a search and rescue helicopter as well as standby vessels and a platform supply vessel.’

map showing the location of the rig east of Shetland
Mariner field operated by Statoil where the rig is located.

The rig is a jack up drilling platform. Operations were halted while the search went on. I can only hope that some peace and closure is found for all concerned.

Reference BBC Click Here

North Sea Decommissioning Opportunities Linked to Retiring Specialists

It is with a touch of regret that a North Sea decommissioning boom is seen as a positive thing. I know the cycle of life in mortals and engineering follows the same path but still I would rather report about upgrading and investment. Every cloud has a silver lining I guess and so may retirement and redundant platforms.

satellite view of the north sea with Europe and the UK shown.
NSA photograph of the North Sea where lies a potential clear up boom.

For sometime those of us with a North Sea background have been  casually watching for opportunities in decommissioning. Being a specialist area, however, the jobs go to those with direct experience. Sure, transferable skills can be adapted to a reversal roll, but still openings are rare.

The North Sea is Literally Littered with Work

According to Boston Consulting Group Director Philip Whittaker, the door to more opportunities in this field may be on the horizon. Rigzone has the full article and I will not steal their thunder so the link is below. In short, decommissioning crews have enough skilled people to cope with the work load. What the article suggests is that at some stage the 500 plus installations out there will need to be tackled and many of the top operators are approaching retirement age.

In addition to the fixed installations there are about the same number of sub sea ones with an estimated 10,000 wells to be sealed. I would hate to foot that bill and in some regards the sooner these issues are tackled the cheaper it will be. As always these days only time will tell.

Rigzone article Click Here