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Compensation for North Sea divers denied access to information about health risks

Vilnes and others v. Norway |2013

Compensation for North Sea divers denied access to information about health risks

The victory at the ECHR was the stepping-stone for our negotiations with the authorities. This finally brought several hundred divers, myself included, compensation and an apology from the Norwegian parliament.

Magn Muledal, pioneer diver - Photo Magn Muledal (private collection)

Background 

Hundreds of deep-sea divers began to suffer from serious health problems after taking part in diving operations as part of Norway’s “pioneer era” of North Sea oil exploration, which lasted from 1965 to 1990. 

Magn Muledal was one of them. During his time working as a pioneer diver, Magn was exposed to decompression sickness, which is an illness that occurs when pressure levels fall too quickly. He also suffered several diving accidents, and once had to recover the dead bodies of oil rig workers when a platform capsized. These incidents had lasting effects on Magn’s health. 

This was dangerous and stressful work. Air gas was used for dives down to 50 metres, and de-pressurisation took place in the water or at the surface. Longer dives required the use of a special chamber in which divers could rest, sleep, and eat between their shifts on the seabed, which sometimes lasted for days or even weeks at a time. The divers used decompression tables to measure how much time was needed to safely adjust pressure levels when coming up to the surface. 

Some pioneer divers developed serious mental disorders after leaving the job. Many were left unable to work again.

In 2004, the Norwegian government set up a compensation scheme for the divers out of a sense of moral and political duty. However, the government did not accept legal responsibility for what had happened. This led to a series of unsuccessful legal challenges by the divers, who wanted to secure more compensation on the grounds of state neglect.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that Norway had failed to give the divers access to essential information which would have allowed them to assess the risks to their health and lives. This violated their human rights.

Diving companies used rapid decompression tables during the “pioneer era” due to the high costs of longer decompression times. They kept the details of these tables secret to have a competitive advantage over other companies. 

The Norwegian authorities did not make the companies produce their decompression tables before allowing them to carry out diving operations. Had they done so, the use of such tables could have been prevented, and a major risk to the divers’ health and safety would have been eliminated.

The court awarded each of the pioneer divers €8,000 in compensation.

Follow-up 

In addition to the damages awarded by the European court, Norway offered compensation to divers and the families of deceased divers who found themselves in a similar situation to those in this case. This also applied to those who had previously received damages under the 2004 compensation scheme. 

By 2015, the Norwegian government had paid a total of €1,925,207 in damages to 250 divers and the families of deceased divers under this arrangement.