A FAILURE to deal with mental health problems is the "biggest risk" still facing the oil and gas industry, an expert has warned amid a new drive to raise awareness of the stresses faced by offshore workers.

Dr Steve Smith said the high-pressure environment of oil rigs and the anxiety of being cut off from loved ones while at sea were among the triggers for potentially "catastrophic" stress and breakdowns.

Dr Smith, a senior lecturer in mental health and wellbeing at Robert Gordon University has backed a new campaign by the oil and gas recruitment firm, Petroplan, to encourage the industry to think more about the mental health of its workers, rather than choosing to focus physical risks faced by employees.

He said: “We have eradicated, or controlled for, almost all the risk factors in the highly dangerous environment of oil and gas exploration and retrieval.

“The biggest risk factor we have left is our own refusal to respond to issues of mental health and wellbeing across the industry.”

Dr Smith, who has previously advised the offshore sector on mental health, said workers were particularly vulnerable to feelings of isolation while working at sea. He added that there were also dangers from high-pressure working environments with no downtime, working in risky territories, the pressures of a macho environment with stigma around ‘feeling low’ and the difficulties of transitioning back to normal life.

Dr Smith said: “Tragically, we have seen the catastrophic consequences of unmanaged problems in the oil and gas industry several times over the past four decades.

“That there haven’t been more of these disasters over the years is something that the industry can rightly be proud of and the focus on prevention of accidents and negative events has become a central part of its culture.

“However, the consequences of unmanaged stress can be just as catastrophic; catastrophic for the individual, for their families, for the people and the organisations they work for and for the industry as a whole.”

In 2008, a female offshore worker Dana Rosu sparked the biggest security alert in the history of the North Sea after "dreaming" that a bomb had been planted on the Safe Scandinavia, an accommodation platform 115 miles from Aberdeen. Ms Rosu reportedly "flipped out" during a lifeboat drill and threatened to jump from the platform unless she was taken off.

The rig was subsequently evacuated and Ms Rosu was remanded in a psychiatric hospital. She was charged with breach of the peace but charges were later dropped.

Heather Nickson, of Petroplan, said: “We hope this campaign raises awareness of mental health so that both professionals and employers will take steps to pay attention to its impact and encourage them to openly discuss anxiety and stress before it poses a risk.”