The possibility of a North Sea incident developing into a disaster such as Piper Alpha has diminished in the last two decades, an industry leader claimed yesterday.
Chris Allen said that safety management, regulation and training had all improved since the night of July 6, 1988, when 167 men died.
However, his optimism was not shared by Jake Molloy, regional organiser of the OILC/RMT union, who said that many incidents since Piper Alpha could have led to multiple fatalities on a similar scale, but only luck had prevented an escalation.
Mr Allen, health, safety, social and environment director at Oil & Gas UK, was giving a press briefing in Aberdeen on safety offshore as the 20th anniversary of the tragedy looms.
Piper Alpha experienced a massive leak of gas condensate which led to explosions and a fireball. Only 61 people on board the rig survived.
The Cullen Report which followed identified factors which contributed to the escalation of the initial incident. These included deficient analysis of the hazards present and poor plant design; deficiencies in the permit-to-work system, and inadequate training of people in the use of permits to work and emergency response.
Mr Allen said one immediate response following the disaster was an investment of about £1billion in safety measures. He added: “Piper Alpha was a turning point for the UK oil and gas industry, leading to significant changes in the industry’s approach to safety management, regulation and training.
“Today, the offshore industry compares well with many other industries in terms of its reportable injury safety performance, being safer than construction, agriculture, manufacturing and the service industries.”
He added: “However, as we are operating in a major hazard environment, asset integrity – the maintenance of offshore assets to be safe, reliable and efficient – remains one of our key challenges.
“The industry is working hard on the issue and is investing more than £1billion a year to keep installations in a safe condition. There are a number of successful cross-industry initiatives which aim to raise awareness of asset integrity issues within the industry and among individual companies.”
He added: “This is why the industry does not shy away from regularly speaking about Piper Alpha. It is important that we remember what happened on July 6, 1988, and that we do not forget the lessons learned from this tragedy, making sure that the next generation of offshore workers does not have to learn the hard way.”
Asked if there was a chance of another Piper Alpha-type incident happening, Mr Allen said: “You can never say never, but we are now in a much better place in terms of understanding the risk and ways of managing it.”
However, the offshore industry was criticised in November after an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the safety and integrity of nearly 100 platforms. The three-year probe found that, while significant improvements had been made, more needed to be done.
Mr Allen said that the situation had improved markedly since then.
Meanwhile, Mr Molloy said last night that Piper Alpha was a tragedy in many ways, but perhaps the most tragic aspect was the “abject” failure of the management systems and controls which should have prevented it.
“There is no doubt that significant improvements in safety have been made across the industry in the 20 years since Piper,” he said. “The industry-specific regulations that have been introduced coupled with the installation of improved hardware should prevent another disaster on the scale of Piper Alpha. I say ‘should’ because we can never say ‘never’.
“Regulations must be adhered to and the hardware will only ever be as good as the people charged with looking after it. People are therefore key to ensuring safety standards are maintained and improved upon.”
Mr Molloy added: “Consider some of the incidents that have occurred down the years since Piper. Many of them could have led to multiple fatalities on a similar scale. In most cases it has been luck, rather than good management, that prevented an escalation. Consider also that in the run-up to many of those incidents the workforce had been raising concerns about safety systems and hardware. Their concerns were either ignored or dismissed.
“In the run-up to the incident which claimed the lives of two workers on Shell’s Brent Bravo in 2003 – which had the potential to kill over 150 – workers were free to challenge management about safety issues, but were ignored.”