New Delhi: In the backdrop of the barge mishap at state-run Oil & Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), multiple sources who have spoken to PSU Watch on the condition of anonymity, have pointed towards a history of lack of transparency in Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) related issues, systemic inefficiencies and violation of protocols as the reasons behind the deteriorating safety practices at India's largest crude oil and gas company. According to sources, a major concern has been the state of ONGC's HSE website, which they have claimed was scrapped in 2017.
"The HSE website was a platform where inquiry reports on mishaps, annual HSE reports, internal safety audit reports, safety brochures and environment brochures were shared with all the employees of ONGC. It not only helped in maintaining transparency on HSE-related matters but it also gave the workforce access to inquiry reports and allowed them to take lessons from the lapses that caused the accident. Since 2017, the HSE website stands scrapped. These reports are no longer shared with all the employees at a platform which can be accessed by any ONGC employee," said one of the sources quoted above.
"It will be better if ASTO (Association of Scientific and Technical Officers) and unions pressurise the management to put all inquiry committee reports and their status as well as internal and external audit reports and their implementation status be posted on ONGC website every quarter," said another source on the condition of anonymity.
Another senior official posted offshore in ONGC claimed that if the safety audit reports were placed in the public domain, everyone would know that half of the barges should be taken down because they are extremely dangerous to work at. "And by not sharing these reports in the public domain, ONGC is, at best, blinding its people towards what is going wrong. It's only natural that such accidents would happen," said the official.
Commenting on the barges whose anchors gave away during Cyclone Tauktae, the official said, "Apart from the clarity on the weather warning and the decision to move barges to safety, there are other kinds of questions that also need to be answered. Did the authority give them sea worthiness? What weather were they designed for? What was contingency plan for bad weather which these barges were not capable of handling? How much spare anchor cable length they had, as reports claim anchor chains broke? The masters should be interrogated whether the ship had a standard operating procedure and whether they had read it and can recall it?"
An ex-ONGC employee, who retired from service in March 2021, told PSU Watch that the issue of the scrapped HSE website at ONGC was an issue that he had raised repeatedly with the CMD and the Director (HR) and the rest of the top management, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas and the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH). KC Hari Kumar, who retired as chief general manager (Geophy-Wells) from ONGC, shared a trail of emails written to the top management, the Petroleum Secretary and the DGH to highlight the issue of the HSE website.
Kumar said that he first raised the matter about the HSE website not being functional in 2017 and had a meeting with Shashi Shanker, who was the then Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) of ONGC, during which he was assured that the website was under maintenance and will be ready eventually. However, a year later, in an email dated September 20, 2018, reviewed by PSU Watch, he was told by a senior official at ONGC, "Please refer our discussion in the meeting with ONGC Officers' Association in May 2018, wherein it was informed by me that the separate CHSE website will be closed and for uniformity, it will be merged with ONGC Reports itself. The same has since been included in 'Services' Head under 'Virtual Corporate.' You may like to visit the referred link."
Kumar wrote another email dated April 18, 2018, addressed to a senior official in the HSE department, in the aftermath of the 2018 helicopter crash at ONGC, which killed five top officers of ONGC and the two pilots onboard. In the email, reviewed by PSU Watch, Kumar said, "CHSE website as on date (17.04.2018) is not having the recent years annual reports etc. It gives the impression that the focus got diluted over the last few years. The practice of taking feedback from the Collectives looks as if abandoned by the Management. Even after 90 days of the gruesome Helicopter accident at Mumbai, the executives have failed to get any feedback from the Management on the findings of the preliminary inquiry."
On being asked about the scrapping of the HSE website at ONGC, an official spokesperson for the Maharatna PSU, said, "The HSE website was merged with another internal website for the purpose of streamlining and uniformity as there were a number of internal websites for ONGC employees." When asked about whether accident inquiry reports and internal safety audit reports are shared with all employees on the new website, the spokesperson said, "These reports are only shared with the HSE department as they are primarily responsible for the formulation of safety policies and guidelines."
Commenting on the importance of maintaining transparency in safety-related matters within the organisation, RS Sharma, who served as the CMD of ONGC between 2007 and 2011, said, "We used to get third-party safety audits done and hold discussions with employees on the reports. These reports should be shared as they help in improving the existing HSE practices."
SK Srivastava, former Director-General of Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) and former CMD of Oil India Ltd (OIL), said, "It is important for every employee to understand the value of safety in high-risk businesses like these. The rule number one to 10 for operations has to be 'safety first.' Employees should be made a stakeholder in such matters. And reports should be circulated to every single employee involved in operations."
On May 17, an ONGC accommodation barge, P305, with 261 employees onboard, who were engaged by Afcons to work on a project for ONGC, de-anchored and drifted due to the impact of Cyclone Tauktae before sinking in the Arabian Sea. The barge mishap has caused massive outrage because 60 employees have been killed in the mishap, while 15 are still missing. In the aftermath of the accident, survivors have recounted stories of how all the life-rafts on the barge were punctured and they had to wear lifejackets and inflatable rings and jump into the stormy sea to save themselves.
The Centre has set up a high-level committee to probe the lapses and gaps in the systems leading to the stranding and drifting of the vessels and the deaths of employees.
Update: On May 23 morning, the ONGC spokesperson has reached out to PSU Watch to retract the statement given earlier. According to the spokesperson, all accident inquiry reports and safety audit reports can be accessed on http://reports.ONGC.co.in by any ONGC employee.
However, sources, who have spoken to PSU Watch, stand steady on their claim that these reports are not uploaded onto the platform.