A Health and Safety Executive chief warned yesterday that there could easily be another Piper Alpha tragedy in the North Sea.
Steve Walker told a press conference at the Offshore Europe energy exhibition in Aberdeen that it would only take something like an inadequate pipework repair to lead to a disaster on the scale of the incident in July 1988 that claimed 167 lives.
A gas leak on the platform ignited, engulfing it in a massive fireball. Only 62 people survived.
Mr Walker, the new head of the HSE’s offshore division, said there had been 21 major and significant hydrocarbon escapes offshore in the second quarter of 2009, against 61 for the whole of 2008. There were 14 major injuries in the three-month period, against 30 for all last year.
He said it could be easy in the current climate to rein back on maintenance of offshore infrastructure – but this was a recipe for disaster. He said he was keen that the progress being made in improving safety did not lead the industry to take its eye off the ball. He said: “I recognise the challenges in keeping ageing installations fit for purpose at a time when industry is looking at the technical and cost demands in developing existing fields, especially in the context of the economic climate and the ongoing energy debate. However, this is no excuse for delaying essential work.
“I intend to continue to drive up standards in the industry and ensure there is no room for complacency. I need to see industry putting its money where its mouth is in terms of improving asset integrity. Though progress is being made, the work is far from complete.”
Robert Paterson, health and safety director with industry body Oil and Gas UK, said later: “Over the last 21 years, the industry has made huge progress in putting in place multiple barriers on its offshore installations to prevent escalation of dangerous occurrences and to reduce their impact.
“In the last four years alone, it has invested more than £4billion in offshore asset integrity and it is extremely encouraging to note that the number of major and significant hydrocarbon releases fell by 17.5% in 2008-09 to the lowest figure on record.
“Step Change in Safety, the UK’s flagship safety initiative, has created a specific asset integrity workgroup to support industry-wide engagement on asset-integrity issues. Step Change’s hydrocarbon release reduction toolkit has also been revised and updated. Both these projects will support our aims to further reduce the rate of hydrocarbon releases.
“While overall the injury rate is coming down, the latest statistics also show that the accidents which do happen have tended to be of a more serious nature.
“It is important we engage in an industry-wide dialogue, including the regulator, trade unions and the workforce, to look at those areas where our efforts have seen an improvement. We need to understand what we are doing right and apply this knowledge widely to reduce the risk of major injuries.”