Piper Alpha: Same hazards exist today, says expert

SAFETY risks on offshore oil rigs are better managed than they were 25 years, but the industry must guard against complacency, a conference in Aberdeen marking the anniversary of Piper Alpha heard.

Over 160 people died in the Piper Alpha disaster. Picture: submitted
Over 160 people died in the Piper Alpha disaster. Picture: submitted
Over 160 people died in the Piper Alpha disaster. Picture: submitted

Around 700 delegates attended the Piper 25 event, organised by industry body Oil & Gas UK.

Robert Paterson, the organisation’s health and safety director, said improvements had been made but warned that lessons still needed to be learned.

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“Exactly the same hazards exist offshore now that existed at the time of Piper Alpha, but we manage those risks much better now,” he said.

“We want to make sure that complacency doesn’t begin to creep in, that people don’t believe that the issues were all sorted out many years ago.”

Jake Molloy, from the RMT union, which represents offshore workers, said: “Regrettably, 167 people had to die for us to learn but we’ve learnt and we continue to learn.

“It’s pricking the conscience of those who were around at the time and, moreover, it’s making those that are coming into the industry aware of the consequences of their failure.”

Lord Cullen, the judge who led the 13-month public inquiry into the disaster, said: “It’s a sad fact that change is often propelled by something disastrous.

“I appreciate all that has been done in regard to offshore safety, but there is a need to constantly keep at it to reduce risk. Every member of the workforce has a contribution to make to safety.”

Lord Cullen made 106 recommendations in his report, all of which were taken on board by the industry.

He added: “In my remit I was asked to make observations and recommendations with a view to the preservation of life and the avoidance of similar accidents in the future. But history does not repeat itself in exactly the same fashion.”

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On the night of 6 July, 1988, four massive explosions destroyed the platform, which lay 110 miles north-east of Aberdeen. Of the 167 men killed, 165 were on the platform and two on a rescue vessel.

At the time, the platform was the biggest producer of oil in the North Sea, turning out 120,000 barrels a day.

Judith Hackitt CBE, chairwoman of the Health and Safety Executive, said: “Marking the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster is important – using this as an opportunity to reflect on how we need to get better at embedding that learning from the past. While the precise circumstances and contexts of major incidents differ in some respects, at heart I am left with the feeling that there are no new accidents. Rather, there are old accidents repeated by new people.”

The Piper 25 conference was opened by Oil & Gas UK’s chief executive Malcolm Webb, who said the impact that offshore tragedy had on people and communities was immeasurable.

He added: “The primary purpose of Piper 25 is to galvanise the oil and gas industry into further continuous improvement.

“We intend to reflect upon the past, review how far we’ve come since that day and gather together experts … with the purpose of sharing good practice and learning from each other.”