A secret blacklisting file opened on an academic who researched health and safety following the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster alleges the offshore oil industry threatened to cut funding to his university if he “continued to cause problems”.
Prof Charles Woolfson published extensively on safety regimes in the North Sea while he was industrial relations professor at the University of Glasgow and wrote a well-regarded book Paying The Piper.
However, having his work reported in the media led to him having a file opened on him in 1995 by The Consulting Association. An extract is pictured below.
The Association was funded by the construction industry to maintain blacklists on thousands of union activists to prevent them being employed. It was shut down by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2009 and its records seized. Ian Kerr, the man paid to run the Association, was later fined £5,000 for breaching data protection laws.
“This is frankly an unwelcome surprise,” Prof Woolfson told me. “There is a clear intent to do me professional harm. This organisation and the industry obviously felt sufficiently threatened by critical academic research on safety to put me on a blacklist.
“I am aware of the activities of Ian Kerr and the next time I am in the UK I would like to meet him.
“When I started the work I said to the university that there might be some reaction from the industry. I was told that as long as I could substantiate my work they would support me whatever the circumstances. I think the university deserves credit for that.
“It is good to know that the tradition of critical scholarship cannot be influenced by threats from powerful corporate interests.”
There is no evidence that any funding was withdrawn and Prof Woolfson says he is not aware of having suffered any detriment as a result of the file. He is now professor of Labour Relations at Linkoping University in Sweden and continues to publish widely on safety in the oil industry.
The file was opened in 1995 following media reports of what the file describes as Prof Woolfson’s “contradictory findings on Health and Safety after Piper Alpha tragedy”. His research showed that safety lessons following the oil rig explosion in 1988 which killed 167 people were not being followed. One of his book’s on the topic is now considered a set text for Shell executives.
Six months later the file reports: “Funding from oil industry to Glasgow University may be cut if aboves activities continue, or there may be a reduction in his activities to prevent this happening.”
There is no further evidence beyond the file that the industry made the threat or tried to make good on it. The rest of Woolfson’s five-page contains numerous clippings from the media.
A spokesperson for the University of Glasgow said: “The University of Glasgow is founded on the premise of academic freedom and we would never compromise on that. As an institution we would never seek to influence the work or research of colleagues on the basis of any real, perceived or implied threat from an external body or agency.”
Jake Molloy from OILC, the union representing off-shore oil workers, told me: “It is quite shocking and appalling, no question about it. But it is appalling that anybody should be targeted because they are talking about health and safety.
“I am aware of an incident where a journalist from a global journal became aware that a major oil company had contacted his employer and they were considering pulling all their adverts because of what he was writing.
“This is the nature of the business you are dealing with. The oil and gas industry is renowned for putting pressure on anybody who challenges or questions them.”
The industry operated what was effectively a blacklist called Not Required Back (NRB) whereby a contractor could end ensure that troublesome personnel were not re-employed on off-shore platforms. Following years of pressure that policy was changed in 2009 and is now much more transparent, though Molloy says there are still issues over the treatment of union members.
There is a reference in Woolfson's file to another Consulting Association file on OILC, but that was not among documents seized by the ICO when it carried out its raid in 2009.