Material matters: Never to be forgotten: how Piper Alpha has changed oil industry safety

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2013

It seems hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the terrible and tragic night of 6 July 1988, when the Piper Alpha oil platform caught fire and exploded with the loss of 167 lives.

It was a defining moment in the history of the UK oil and gas industry and one that has had a huge impact on those of us who have worked in the industry since then.

The road to disaster will be a familiar one to any student of major accident analysis – fundamental flaws in the design and operation of the platform, warnings about said flaws ignored, concerns about the situation not elevated to sufficiently high level within the company and a management culture unwilling to accept challenge or to hear bad news.

The year-long Cullen enquiry into the disaster resulted in 106 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Government and industry. Chief among these was the requirement for every UK offshore installation to have a written Safety Case, outlining the installation design, the major hazards, the mitigations in place to safeguard against those hazards and the protection of the workforce should any hazardous situation escalate into an actual incident. Many of the other 105 recommendations, which are still just as relevant today, can be categorised into one of six Cs – better control of work, improved competency, unambiguous communication, a robust safety culture and visible commitment from management and workforce.

As someone who has worked in the North Sea oil industry for 26 years, I have seen first-hand how safety has become a core and integral part of how we extract this precious commodity, such that the UK offshore safety culture can rightly be considered one of the most robust in the world. That doesn’t mean that serious incidents don’t still happen – last year there were 52 major or significant hydrocarbon releases reported to the UK HSE – but that compares to 175 such instances in 1993–1994, the first full year of reporting such data, which was itself a recommendation of Cullen. While that is still too many, it has to be put in the context of 288 offshore installations, many of which are well over 20 years old and operate in one of the most severe environments in the world. Furthermore, and fortunately, none of those 52 incidents resulted in a fatality or serious injury.

Interestingly, despite the human cost and Cullen’s stringent criticism of the platform operator, no-one was ever prosecuted over the Piper Alpha disaster. Instead, in Lord Cullen’s words, ‘On all sides – the industry, the workforce and those who were affected by what happened – there seemed to be a common will to create something positive out of a terrible disaster’.

This makes an interesting comparison with the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. A Presidential Commission investigated that disaster with much the same thoroughness as Cullen, and made many excellent recommendations that will surely enhance deepwater drilling in the years to come. But I wonder whether 22 years from now people will reflect on how much safer deepwater drilling has become, or will it be remembered more for the recordbreaking litigation costs and compensation payments?

Maybe I shouldn’t be too judgemental and instead reflect on the sixth C: complacency. Because we must guard against this with, literally, our lives to ensure we never suffer another Piper.