Near Death

Offshore job accident puts spotlight on industry safety gaps

“I couldn’t sleep for two days. 

Every time I shut my eyes it would replay.
It was horrific.
The sling blew off the end of the steel pipe,
swung wide around me,
picked Andy up off the deck and flung him into the pipe like a rag doll.
It seemed like minutes, but it was probably over in a few seconds.
I thought he was dead.”

Tony Mellick, IR and Andy Poynter were mates. They’d worked three ships together over 10-15 years seafaring.

It was just on 3am on Tuesday, September 8. Tony and Andy were two of four MUA crew on the deck of the platform supply vessel Toisa Serenade offloading pipes onto the Audacia on the Woodside Pluto project off Dampier.

There had been one incident that night with the sling coming off the load. No one was hurt. The crew had a toolbox meeting and decided to keep working.

Everyone had turned in except for the four men working the cargo and two watch keepers on the bridge.

“We were down to the last four pipes to discharge before we headed back for the night when it happened,” Tony said.

Chief IR Andy Poynter was placing the wire rope sling over the 36-inch length of pipe. Using the tag line one end, his mate placed the sling the other end. One pipe at a time. It was Andy’s last shift on his last swing before heading home. Tony was in radio communication with the ship and crane operator.

“I was dogging the crane, watching everything, keeping an eye on Andy,” said Tony. “It all happened in seconds. Andy whacked his head on the end of pipe, doubled up and somehow ended up with his upper body inside the pipe and his legs hanging out. I thought he’d broken his neck for sure.”

Tony unhooked the other end of the pipe before it swung out then jumped in to check on Andy.

He was still conscious.
“Are you okay, mate?” Tony asked.
“Oh Jesus, mate I’m sore,” said Andy.

Tony called to get the other IRs up out of bed and first aid. He kept talking, comforting Andy, stopping him going unconscious.

“Andy complained he was getting cold,” he said. “He started to go grey all over. I could see he was going into shock.”

The second mate on watch came down and helped with first aid and got the oxygen going.

“I went around the other end of the pipe and crawled in to watch over Andy until the medic from the Audacia came down.”

It took a good 20 minutes. They argued about moving him.

“I told the medic I was more worried about Andy’s neck and spine than the gash on the back of his head. All the gear was Chinese built and too small. The stretcher only went to Andy’s knees.”

“Andy started to shut down on us,” he said. “He kept saying ‘I’m really tired, mate’. But we just kept talking to him telling him “Stay with us, mate. Everything’s good we’ll get you out of here.”

Once they got hold of a head block Tony was happy to pull Andy out of the pipe.

They got him transferred by crane to the Audacia, by helicopter to Karratha Hospital, then by fixed wing to the Royal Perth Hospital.

No memory

The Serenade finished unloading and returned to Karratha.

The next day Andy came to in hospital. He had no memory of the accident.

“Out of the blue Andy rang me up, asking ‘What the hell happened, mate,’” said Tony. “He didn’t know he was in Perth.”

“My word I’m a lucky man,” said Andy. “The sling is steel wire with a big eye. It hit me in the chest, lifted me off the deck and threw me back four metres where I struck the back of my head on top of the pipe. Or so I’m told. I’ve got no memory of it. It was the blow to my head. I remember an hour before the accident and the next memory I was in hospital. I don’t know how long I was knocked out.”

“The doctor says I’ve got brain damage,” said Andy. “And soft tissue damage to my neck, shoulders, lower back and arms. And some bruising to my chest. He says it could be anything from two weeks to months before my head settles. They can’t put a date on it. I still get ringing in my right ear. I still get headaches. And I’m still confused about things.”

Andy is out of hospital now but still a bit unsteady on his feet.

“The crane driver came to see me in hospital and so many people were phoning me and talking to me. That’s what got me through it.”

Andy worried about his wife at home and the company offered to fly her in.

Branch praised

MUA WA branch stood by Andy throughout the whole ordeal.

“A big thank you to Noel and Chris for everything they did for us,” said Andy. “Chris Cain is a busy man, but he sat with us in company investigation. We didn’t want to go in there alone. He made the time to make sure he was there for us.”

In a letter to the branch Andy also formally thanked the crew of Toisa Serenade and Audacia “for their quick and decisive actions on the 08.09.09 when I got struck by a wire sling and thrown into the pipes. Luckily, I suffered no bone damage or bad injuries due to the efforts of the Serenade crew (thanks boys).

“I have no memory of the event but was told of it by various people and I must say that I am very lucky. My thanks also to the Audacia crew for their assistance during my medivac.

“Whilst I was in Perth hospital I was visited by Rory the crane driver whose concern was uplifting and also his brother Nick. I also was visited by Joe Wilkinson (cheers Alfie) and Mick Canning. Also special thanks to Chris Cain and Tony Mellick for their outstanding assistance at the accident enquiry.

“The union officials and the office girls were a very big support to myself and my wife Esther who was unable to fly because of her own health issues. It still makes me proud to be a member of this great union and all it stands for.

MUA here to stay.

Yours in Unity
Andy and Esther Poynter 2694
Sons Justin and Andrew John.”

Call for action

Meanwhile the Maritime Union has called for action on safety after the near death incident.

Branch Secretary Chris Cain took the matter to the media announcing the union would stop jobs if safety was in question.

At issue is the confusion over the jurisdiction over offshore facilities, vessels and oil rigs.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) took 24 hours to arrive at a decision on which body would investigate the accident.

"This mess between the safety regulators is absolutely no help in trying to lift safety standards in the oil and gas industry," Chris Cain said.

He said MUA members were prepared to down tools over their concerns at the situation after several near misses at the Pluto site.

"Our members have been saying if we have to stop the job ... then we will," he said. "It's not industrial action."

Meeting the Minister

At the same time national officials have been holding top-level meetings with ministers on offshore safety.

MUA Deputy National Secretary Mick Doleman, Policy Executive Officer Rod Pickette and AIMPE met with Martin Ferguson, Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism on September 21 at the Minister’s request where he outlined a government process and timeline to reform offshore safety regulation.

Mr Ferguson invited the unions to have input in developing the legislative response to both the 2008 Review of NOPSA and the 2008-2009 Review of Offshore Regulation arising from the inquiry into the Karratha Spirit and Castorro Otto incidents in December last year.

The Minister also says the government supports the Productivity Commission recommendation for a single national offshore petroleum regulator. The body would have responsibility for resource management, pipelines and environmental approvals and compliance.

The union will be working to ensure union and labour force issues are addressed.

Martin Ferguson also reiterated his support for a nationally consistent approach to safety standards for high-risk work/lifting operations in the offshore sector in a letter to Deputy PM Julia Gillard.

MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin has written to the Deputy PM supporting the proposal as well as making representations to Safe Work Australia on the issue.