THE multi-billion pound offshore energy industry continues to grow at a rapid pace. Companies are constantly searching for ways to improve services and safety in one of the toughest and dangerous working environments in the world. Business Writer Steven Hugill looks at how one North-East firm is playing a major part.

THE North Sea. July 6 1988. Above freezing waters, the calm is suddenly broken by tragic scenes of sheer devastation.

Fire is ravaging the decks of the Piper Alpha oil platform.

Panic-stricken workers are rushing for safety from the intense flames and toxic fumes, with some leaping into waters covered in burning oil as explosions rip the platform apart.

The huge inferno can be seen for miles around and completely destroys the rig.

The disaster, caused by a gas leak which set off the blasts and sparked the fire, claimed 167 lives on the Occidental Oil rig.

At the time, the Piper Oil platform, which was 120 miles off the north-east coast of Scotland, was the largest and oldest in the North Sea oilfield.

It's destruction led to major investigations and became a pivotal factor in vastly increasing safety to prevent such devastation in future years.

And it is this necessity for constant, stringent checks and advanced technology which forms the bedrock of a rapidly growing North-East company.

Drive past their head offices in Whessoe Road, Darlington, and you could be forgiven for failing to give the building a second glance.

It looks like a standard business headquarters nestled neatly into an industrial area.

But take a closer look at MTE Limited, and you see a multi-million pound business right at the centre of offshore energy industry safety.

The company designs, manufactures and supplies fire and blast protection walls and heat shields to protect workers against the effects of radiant heat and extreme weather across the oil and gas, renewable energy and subsea markets.

For decades, it has pioneered the design of modules providing fire and blast protection for living quarters, temporary refuge rooms, office buildings and control rooms, and its design consultancy arm helps clients with highly accurate design and cost projections.

This dedication and skill means its products are now used by thousands of companies and workers across the world.

Founded in 1969 as Mech-Tool Engineering, the firm employs 170 workers with a head office and fabrication plant in Darlington, and another manufacturing operation on the banks of the River Tees, in Middlesbrough.

It saw a turnover of more than £16m and profits of £600,000 in the year ending in March last year, and changed its name as it looks to raise its profile even further in global markets.

The company has just announced a multi-million dollar deal with a Canadian company to provide 10,000sq metres of fire and blast cladding doors and windows for offshore platforms in Newfoundland and Labrador oil fields.

That success was quickly followed by a similarly expensive contract to supply an Oslo-based client with a local equipment room to the Arctic conditions of the Russian island, Odoptu, and an order from Aker Solutions, in Norway, for harsh environment windfall systems for drilling rigs in the Norwegian Continental Shelf.

Matthew Camp, the firm's business manager, says the company is on the up and was incredibly proud of its achievements.

He said: “It is quite a hard working environment and the quality and standard of health and safety is taken very seriously and has to be exactly right.

“People are very fragile and you have to take extreme safety measures, the bottom line is that we have to ensure people who go to work get home safe and sound.

“The ethos of the company is simple, we must keep people safe.

“Of all the steps that we are making, the first priority is to sustain and secure the opportunities to grow in the market place, but do it in a way that still fits the company's values and principles.

“Our success is testament to the determination and attitude of the people who work for us and it makes me very proud to see our projects unfold.”

That drive is reflected throughout the company's history, which includes a £2.3m contract to send pre-assembled buildings, fire walls, blast walls to Centrica's Offshore Wind Farm Project, five miles off the coast of Skegness, Lincolnshire, in 2010.

Mr Camp, who has spent four years in his current role, says the business is intensely progressive and is always looking at ways to improve its products.

He pointed towards its design consultancy, which analyses in great detail how complex structures withstand blast and fire conditions, with solutions ranging from wall weights and depths to interpretation of blast study reports.

He said: “The need for energy is growing faster than the ability to support it.

“We realise the need to work closely with our clients and suppliers and we are trying to build long-term partnerships.

“We are constantly re-investing in technologies and facilities to remain competitive and stay in the right market and move forward with those markets.

“We are also increasing the specification of the products so they can function in more onerous environments.

“An example of out ability to do that comes through our design consultancy, which is a global service for the company and we can offer expertise and solutions to various situations.”

Mr Camp worked for two years as a project manager and saw first-hand the company's products being fitted on platforms, which he says was an enjoyable experience.

He said: “I did a lot of site inspections and it was life at the coalface seeing everything in action.

“I got a lot of pride from doing that job because I could see where our fire walls and modules were going and where they would be used.

“But what was even more satisfying was that because we provide a piece of the jigsaw that forms the outer skin of the platforms, it was our product you could see.

“When the modules are being lifted into place, you see the outside, you see our work, and that is a great feeling.”

Mr Camp says the company is constantly looking forward, and recognises the hard work of its staff in its achievements, which has seen the firm pick up 12 successive Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents Gold Awards and a President's Award and commendation.

But what does all this mean for the future of MTE?

Mr Camp is unequivocal in his view.

“In the coming year we expect to see increased turnover of about 50 per cent”, he says.

“We are only going onwards and upwards.”