Safety30: 30th Anniversary of the Piper Alpha Tragedy

Posted on July 6, 2018

Piper Alpha Memorial in Hazlehead Park

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the horrific tragedy at the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea that led to the deaths of 167 people.  An explosion and resulting fires completely destroyed the oil and gas rig, which was burning for weeks after the structure fell into the sea. The disaster was a shocking, traumatic event for the energy industry and led to huge changes in health and safety legislation to ensure that such a catastrophe could never happen again. Continuous regulation and improvements are key to ensuring the success of the oil and gas industry, as highlighted by the Safety30 event to mark the anniversary. 

Safety30 Conference

Last month the Safety30 conference, organised by Oil and Gas UK, highlighted the lessons learnt by the Piper Alpha disaster and the need for continued investment in health and safety within the oil and gas industry. Lord Cullen, who chaired the public inquiry into Piper Alpha, was a keynote speaker at the conference and warned against inadequate safety inspections and three factors leading to incidents: poor safety awareness, failure to make safety a priority and failure to instil responsibility on safety issues. Lord Cullen said

“People who are responsible for safety may be tempted to prefer a harmless explanation for what are, in fact, signs of danger. Lest you may think that in any of these cases they were simply no more than human error, I must say that the accidents, practices and values of the workforce are often shaped by the tone set by management. That’s another chapter in the book of lessons. There is much to be learned from the experiences of others.” 

The second day of the conference saw Paul Wheelhouse, Scotland’s energy minister, delivering the keynote speech. Wheelhouse used his platform to say that we, the industry, owe it to those who lost their lives to ensure that “…the UK continental shelf is the safest place to work in the global oil and gas industry.” 

Modern Concerns

There have been wide-ranging changes in legislation since the 1988 disaster, The Offshore Installations (Safety Case) Regulations 1992 was implemented following the Cullen report and there have been vast improvements in the design and building of platforms since. Modern concerns raised at the conference from Paul Wheelhouse were regarding a lack of investment in industry safety, as well as the health impacts of working on three-week onshore, offshore rotas. Shift patterns are a major concern for offshore workers, a recent study didn’t show an impact on safety but did suggest  the impact on the wellbeing of employees working for long shifts for extended periods.