North Sea divers win in Strasbourg

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The pioneering deep-sea divers who helped usher in Norway’s offshore oil age, only to later be largely rebuffed by both their employers and the state when they developed serious health problems, won a decades-long battle on Thursday at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. One of their lawyers called the ruling “a full victory.”

The case went to Europe’s court of last appeal after Norway’s own Supreme Court had handed the divers a bitter defeat. The country’s highest court (Høyesterett) dashed the divers’ hopes of finally winning more compensation for both the physical and psychological problems that followed their pioneering dives from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Seven plaintiffs representing many
Five Norwegian divers, one Swedish diver and one diver from Iceland filed complaints seen as representing those of many other divers, claiming they are now disabled as a result of North Sea diving during what the European court itself called “the pioneer period” from 1965 until 1990.

The seven men all claimed that they developed health problems as a result of “bounce” (short) and “saturation” (longer duration) diving jobs and test dives. The European court noted that most now suffer obstructive lung disease, encephalopathy, reduced hearing and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

All seven plaintiffs alleged that their health problems and disability were caused by “shortcuts taken in their working conditions and safety during diving operations,” according to the court. They have claimed they were pushed into carrying out risky dives, while state authorities granted dispensation (to those employing them) from the maximum length of a diver’s umbilical as well as from the saturation time. That, the court noted, “made it possible for diving companies to use too-rapid decompression tables (which caused decompression sickness and the bends).”

The divers further complained that the Norwegian state failed to provide them with adequate information about the risks involved in both deep sea diving and test diving.

Court agreed
The divers filed a last-ditch appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, arguing that their human rights had been violated. On Thursday, the court agreed, claiming that the divers should have received information about the dangers of the diving they were carrying out to enable offshore oil exploration and production.

Eyvind Mossige, judicial leader for the labour organization Industri Energi, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the divers didn’t prevail in all the matters they took up, “but we regard this as a full victory. The most important point is that the divers did not get the information on the danger they faced.”

The divers were granted a relatively modest compensation of EUR 8,000 each and a ruling that all their legal costs will be covered, but the European Court did not hold the Norwegian state liable for the physical and psychic ailments themselves. That suggests the state can avoid paying out major compensation claims, although parliament earlier approved a compensation plan to give each diver up to NOK 2.5 million. Around NOK 600 million has been paid out, according to the Labour Ministry, but many divers complain the compensation is inadequate and difficult to obtain. Complaints also have been filed that it doesn’t cover non-Norwegian divers who also worked in the North Sea but haven’t received compensation for health problems afterwards. Many of the divers have since died, living widows in a difficult financial situation.

State’s ‘bad conscience’
“But now we can go into dialogue with the state after we have all digested this ruling properly,” Mossige told NRK. “If we don’t come to terms on compensation, we will consider a new appeal to the Supreme Court.” Backed by the Strasbourg ruling, the divers would presumably have a far greater chance of winning.

Many state politicians already have “a bad conscience” over how Norway’s North Sea divers have been treated over the years by the state, according to Per Sandberg, a Member of Parliament for the Progress Party, which now shares government power with the Conservative Party. He told NRK Thursday morning before the ruling in favour of the divers was handed down that he thinks “something now can be worked out” to compensate the divers for their suffering.

The divers won new public sympathy this autumn after the release of a dramatic film called Pionér (Pioneer) that highlighted the danger and later the injustice faced by the North Seadivers. Some film commentators noted that the film portrayed “the dirty birth” of Norway as an oil nation, and that it was high time the divers won recognition and reward.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund