Piper Alpha: where are we 30 years later?

On July 6th, 1988, a series of unfortunate, and avoidable, events resulted in massive explosions and the deaths of 167 people on board the Piper Alpha platform. Like all disastrous events in history, it is important to remember everyone involved and in doing so remember why incidents like these occur so that we can continue to learn from these and ensure that they never happen again.

There are few events in our lifetimes where we are likely to remember what we were doing or where we were at the exact moment that we heard of a disaster. Piper Alpha was one of those events.

The Public Inquiry into the Piper Alpha Disaster (the Cullen Report) lasted two years and resulted in 106 recommendations for changes to North Sea procedures. The recommendations led to the publication of official legislation – the Offshore Installation (Safety Case) Regulations 1992 – which required operators to present a safety case to the Health and Safety Executive, rather than the Department of Energy to remove any conflict of interest. Recommendations also led to a number of changes in Control of Work procedures.

When reviewing the timeline of events from that night ,several earlier events could have been prevented with better Control of Work processes, and William Cullen highlighted that the Permit to Work system on Piper Alpha was based on “informal and unsafe practice” and that process was “knowingly and flagrantly flouted”.

Sadly, poor process and procedure was not the only issue for Piper Alpha. Failings in emergency procedures and equipment, combined with overlooking safety standards when converting the platform from oil to gas, switching the fire water pumps from automatic to manual alongside a number of other safety errors, contributed to the catastrophic events taking place that night. 165 men onboard and another 2 on a vessel, attempting to rescue those in the sea, lost their lives.  Thankfully, 61 men survived the inferno on the Piper Alpha.  None came home the same person as they were when they had gone away.

The government and the offshore industry adopted all 106 recommendations. After the event, MP Frank Dobson said “Condolences and tributes are not enough. The 30,000 people who daily earn their living on North Sea installation work and live in a profoundly hostile environment. They deal with raw energy in concentrations the magnitude and danger of which is hard to comprehend. We owe them more than tributes and condolences. We owe them the safest working conditions that can be obtained.”

This statement is incredibly close to our hearts at Cresent. Every day we live and breathe safety with the intention to protect those who put their lives in the hands of the world’s most hostile environments and to prevent incidents like this from ever happening.

It’s vital to remind ourselves about the importance that the Permit to Work process played in the events that unfolded on that fateful night. Sometimes Permit to Work is seen as a box-ticking exercise. We need to remember that complacency can have disastrous consequences. Understanding and awareness are no longer the only things that matter. The offshore industry needs advocates. People who, right from the top down, whole-heartedly believe in safety above anything else.

The oil and gas industry in the United Kingdom has implemented more control measures for safety than any other comparable industry. However, how much of this has become routine box-ticking? Do people have to think about the potential consequences or repercussions of their work anymore? Have we become complacent or process driven because we haven’t had, or can’t even imagine, a disaster of this magnitude since?

The recommendations introduced from the Cullen Report still stand today. Regular drills take place offshore; process controls were put in place; mandatory incident reporting and safety cases are all requirements on offshore installations. The North Sea is one of the harshest environments in the world, and every day thousands of individuals call it their second home.

Chris Flint, director of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) energy division, wrote to senior industry leaders urging them to review their operations and to learn from incidents in the process industries to identify where improvements could be made to improve their own safety standards and processes.  This was in 2017, 29 years after Piper Alpha.

In 2016, 18% of major accident hazards that occurred were hydrocarbon releases (HCR) – the second most frequent incident to occur, after Dropped Objects. In recent years, the number of HCRs has continued to increase, and the potential impacts of an incident of this kind do not appear to be taken seriously. Operators were asked to respond to Flint detailing either how they had, or how they planned to, make improvements to their safety systems.

Pro-active attitudes like this are what the oil and gas industry needs as a reminder not to become complacent or relaxed. The recommendations that were put in place following Piper Alpha were reactive, and, as an industry, we need to ensure that the lives of those working in our industry are never put at risk like this again, especially as a result of poor safety procedure.

Safety culture has to run from the very top and cascade down through the business. We want to encourage everyone to feel that they can speak up.

Before and throughout the recent downturn, offshore workers have expressed concerns about being able to speak out on safety concerns for fear of losing their jobs[i]. This feeling only seems to have become even more prevalent through the downturn. For those passionate about safety, this is difficult to comprehend. The oil and gas industry needs to look inside itself to change this.

The persistently low oil price has uncovered many issues in the industry. Cutbacks have meant that platforms often don’t have enough staff on board, training budgets have been cut, safety isn’t always considered the top priority and the rise in hydrocarbon releases over this time does not appear to be a coincidence.

It’s critical to remember those who lost their lives, those who survived and the details of the event that led to such great change for the oil and gas industry. We must ensure that something like this never happens again.


[i] Offshore workers fear for their health and safety – Unite the union: http://www.unitetheunion.org/how-we-help/listofregions/scotland/latestnews/offshore-workers-fear-for-their-health-and-safety/


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