Piper Alpha – 25 years on…

Saturday, July 6th marks the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster – still the worst offshore tragedy in UK history. Four massive explosions destroyed the Piper Alpha platform around 100 miles north-east of Aberdeen killing 167 men – 165 on the platform and two on a rescue vessel. At the time, Piper Alpha was the biggest producer of oil in the North Sea turning out 120,000 barrels a day and accounted for approximately 10% of the north east’s oil supply.

The anniversary reminds us of the necessity of health and safety and what can happen if the proper standards are not in place – the lessons of Piper Alpha are as relevant today as they were 25 years ago.

Safety in the oil and gas industry has improved massively since the recommendations of the Cullen Report, carried out in two parts by Lord Cullen in 1988 – the first part was to establish the cause of the disaster, the second looked at measures to prevent future accidents – 106 recommendations were made, all of which were accepted by the industry.

The responsibilities of these recommendations were split with The Health and Safety Executive overseeing 57, operators were responsible for 48, 8 for the whole industry and the last was for the Standby Ship Owners Association. By 1993 all of the 48 recommendations made to operators had been implemented. The key recommendation given to the HSE – the introduction of safety requiring the operator/owner of every fixed and mobile installation operating in the UK waters to submit to HSE, for their acceptance, a safety case – came into effect in 1992 and by 1995 all cases for every installation had been accepted.

Health and Safety offshore has certainly been improved in the last 25 years, fatalities have fallen sharply and continue to drop. Most incidents are down to personal safety rather than ‘control of the hydrocarbons’, which we call oil and gas. Health and safety is not just a tick box exercise – it is crucial to the success of the oil and gas sector. Malcolm Webb, Chief Executive on Oil and Gas UK commented ‘We intend to reflect upon the past, review how far we’ve come since that day and gather experts… with the purpose of sharing good practice and learning from each other.’

Condolences and tributes are never enough – offshore workers deserve safest working conditions possible, something which the industry as a whole must strive to ensure.