THE first thing you forget is distance. By a straight measure, there are 220 miles of sea between Lerwick and Bergen in Norway. Just at the moment, the Borgsten Dolphin rig is close enough to the halfway point in an expanse of nothing. As a commute, that's Aberdeen to Edinburgh with a few miles to spare.
The second thing forgotten by most of us is that the North Sea often isn't pretty; it throws wicked weather around you with a certain abandon. To live and work amid that, when murk or sleet is your only horizon, takes a certain quality of mind. What is called good money for the labour is the minimum anyone should expect.
That would be the third thing lost when memory is adrift. We are all adept, nowadays, at arguing over Britain's oil and Scotland's oil; who has a right to what, and which bit of the tax take is yours, mine, or ours. We forgot what is involved in raising the filthy detritus from the sea floor. Big Oil boasts of its multi-billion-dollar investments, but you can still price a commodity in lives.
In former generations we were taught - some of us - about the price of coal or the price of fish. It was a kind of secular homily. Miners or mariners died, we were reminded, just so that you could complain about cleaning the grate, or picking a few bones off a plate. These days we have the weird idea that no-one does that kind of hard, dangerous task any more.
Establishing just how many have died since the Forties field was discovered in 1970, or since drilling began on the Argyll deposit in 1975, is strangely difficult. The website of the Health & Safety Executive seems to contain no cumulative, historic totals. Had a war been declared for the conquest of the North Sea, we would all know the numbers. The monuments would be bigger, the facts less obscure, the truth common knowledge.
Instead, we have the headline tragedies. There was the Alexander Kielland, which capsized in 1980 with 123 lost and many more injured. There was the Chinook "accident" in 1986, when 45 perished. There was Piper Alpha in 1988, with the loss of 167 lives.
A few days later, I discovered that one of those who died was someone I had gone to school with. In the kind of strange, humbling process that marks a small country, it soon became obvious that there was nothing unusual about that. For a while, everyone seemed to know someone who had known someone. It also transpired, as a never-verified claim, that "only" about 300 had died before that night in the effort to bring Scotland's oil to market.
Even at a rough guess, the figures were monumental. How many have died since? I can't tell you, not with certainty. Every now and then something terrible happens. Inquiries are held; anecdotes and allegations do the rounds. Those of us with neither knowledge nor experience content ourselves with that. Those who take the risks just get on with it.
Big Oil is these days proud of its safety record. Deaths and "three-day injuries" are far fewer than they once were, they say. All those stories about the increasing number of helicopters that have "gone technical" - and been removed, however briefly, from service - are just stories. But where safety is concerned, the North Sea has a habit of pushing you three steps back for every step forward. The industry, for which time is money, responds with ruthless determination.
So the lay person gains the impression that an awful lot of helicopters have been flopping into the sea lately. In the latest piece of hellishness, four people died off Shetland on the North Sea commute from the Borgsten Dolphin platform. For a few days, offshore Super Puma flights were suspended. But then, it seems, all problems are resolved by a vote of something called the Helicopter Safety Steering Group (HSSG). Can you make a helicopter safe with a vote?
That's probably unfair. Those involved do not take risks, they insist. But in the case of the latest loss, a strange logic is being applied: grounding the Super Pumas means leaving people stuck on rigs. This is unfair and, it is argued, a threat to safety in its own right. Or as Les Linklater of the HSSG has said: "We must consider the cumulative risk of the 'time out'. We must avoid a further tragedy through the introduction of human factor-based risk such as fatigue, stress and other wellbeing concerns that increase the likelihood of a high-consequence, low-frequency event."
He seems to say that it is more dangerous not to fly than to fly. The language - of high consequences and low frequency - might also be considered odd. Is the best response to a thus-far unexplained tragedy to persist with the use of the machines at the heart of the tragedy?
Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary of the Unite trades union, told the BBC that the grounding of L2 type of helicopter - also involved in the deaths of 16 people in 2009 - is "the bare minimum that the industry can do until the recovered black box's data fully establishes why this [latest] tragedy occurred". His union wants assurances that workers will not be forced to fly in helicopters when they have concerns about safety.
Fair-minded people might wonder why no-one has insisted that the industry waits for the black box data and the results of an air accident investigation.
Last week, Rafferty said: "Confidence has been shattered and the industry needs to provide substantive evidence - not opinion - to its workers demonstrating the airworthiness of the helicopters that are now returning to operations."
If any part of that statement is true, no-one should be obliged to board a Super Puma.
There is big money on the rigs, though, and there's the dole as an alternative. There is a family waiting at home, as often as not, one that has grown accustomed to separation and risk. They should not also suffer fear daily for the sake of the black stuff we take for granted.
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