As the North Sea industry marks the 20-year anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, it seems fitting to take stock of the resultant changes, and in particular to note raised awareness of health and safety issues and ask whether all lessons may have been fully learned?
Piper Alpha was the world’s worst offshore oil disaster to date in terms of people killed and impact to industry, claiming the lives of 167 men and leaving only 62 survivors. On July 6, 1988, a massive leakage of gas condensate ignited on the Occidental Petroleum-operated platform 193km north-east of Aberdeen, causing an explosion.
This led to large oil fires, the heat of which ruptured a gas riser, producing a further massive explosion and fireball that engulfed and destroyed the entire platform. All of this took just 22 minutes – the scale of the disaster was unprecedented.
Piper Alpha was a catalyst for change to the health and safety regime offshore. As details of the causes of the disaster came to light, most offshore operators rapidly carried out assessments of their installations and management systems, including improvements to “permit-to-work” systems, relocation of pipeline emergency shutdown valves and improvements to evacuation and escape systems.
It is estimated that more than £1billion was invested in safety measures in the immediate aftermath of Piper Alpha. This was the start of a more serious attention to health and safety in an industry which, until that time, had perhaps not fully comprehended the potential hazards of the harsh offshore high-risk industry.
In 1988, Lord Cullen was appointed to chair the official public inquiry, the aim of which was to review the causes of the disaster and to make recommendations for reforms to prevent further catastrophes.
His report identified a catalogue of errors which contributed to the severity of the incident, including deficient analysis of hazards, deficiencies in the permit-to-work system, inadequate training in the use of permits and emergency response, the breakdown of the chain of command and the lack of communication between the platform’s crews.
Poor plant design was another major factor – it is notable that the fireproof walls of the platform had never actually been upgraded to blast walls, as was required after gas conversion equipment was installed in 1980.
Lord Cullen’s report brought to light substantial and significant failings in the UK offshore safety regime as a whole and made 106 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Government and by industry.
The previous “prescriptive” approach to health and safety was thought to have conditioned people to think of health and safety as a matter of compliance rather than of taking responsibility and assessing tasks on their merits. Lord Cullen’s report, however, favoured a goal-setting approach to legislation. This was seen as a way of encouraging a safer (and more safety-conscious) culture offshore as it involves continuous self-monitoring and safety assessment.
Under the regime introduced after Piper Alpha, overall responsibility offshore for the safe operation of the installation lies with the “duty holder”, who will usually be the owner or operator of the installation. A duty holder will appoint an offshore installation manager (OIM), who will take responsibility for safety on his platform.
Lord Cullen’s report introduced the safety-case regime, which is laid down in a series of offshore-specific regulations. The introduction of the safety case was perhaps one of his most important recommendations because an installation cannot operate unless it has a Health and Safety Executive (HSE)-approved safety case.
The safety case must demonstrate that the operator and duty holders have an adequate safety management system; that they have identified major accident hazards, have assessed the risks from those hazards, have established adequate audit and reporting arrangements and have taken the measures necessary to reduce the risks to people to as low as reasonably practicable.
The safety case must be sent to the HSE and approved at least six months before operations commence. The preparation of a safety case is paid for by the operator, and said operator must also meet HSE’s costs in assessing and approving it.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 is still the principal statute governing health and safety offshore, but is now supplemented by the offshore-specific regulations created post-Piper Alpha. The sanction for breach of the 1974 act or its regulations is usually a fine (or imprisonment in the case of individual liability), although the HSE can issue prohibition or improvement notices as an alternative.
Many people are surprised to hear that, despite the enormity of the incident, no prosecutions were ever brought as a result of the tragedy.
As Lord Brennan said in the House of Lords: “How can it be that such events can occur, and be found to have occurred as the result of the grossest of negligence, yet no one suffers a criminal penalty?”
Twenty years on, responsibility for death in the workplace is now being addressed by way of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, which came into force on April 6, 2008.
The act creates a new statutory offence of corporate manslaughter (to be known as corporate homicide in Scotland), where a fatality is caused by the “gross breach” of a duty of care and where the actions of the company’s senior management played a “substantial” part in the breach.
“Gross breach” will occur where there has been a failure to comply with health and safety law and where an organisation’s conduct falls far below what can reasonably be expected.
As a result of the act, any workplace incident in the UK (including offshore installations) leading to a fatality is likely to result in a corporate manslaughter (or corporate homicide) investigation. Such investigations will be lengthy, intrusive and damaging to businesses. Investigations will focus on the entire safety management system of the company.
It is important to note that although the act creates a new offence, it does not impose any new obligations on employers. The principal duties of employers will remain as before under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The conduct of senior management must form a “substantial element” of a breach, but the new offence is directed at the company itself as opposed to its individual managers or directors.
With the coming into force of the 2007 act, companies (and, in particular, directors) should ensure that they are well prepared by doing all that they can to comply with all existing health and safety legislation, approved codes of practice, guidance and regulations, as failure to comply may be taken into consideration by a jury in reaching a decision of corporate manslaughter.
Directors will also want to satisfy themselves that their policies and procedures are properly documented by way of an adequate “paper trail”, implemented by all levels of management and staff, and reviewed and monitored on a regular basis. They may also wish to arrange for a legal audit of their procedures so as to ensure compliance with health and safety legislation.
Significant improvements have been made in the UK offshore industry since Piper Alpha. Indeed, many people believe that the possibility of such a disaster has diminished over the last 20 years.
However, in November, 2007, the HSE released the findings of a three-year inspection of nearly 100 offshore installations and their equipment. The damning report into offshore safety stated that key issues identified at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster had not yet been properly addressed. The report revealed that nearly 60% of the plants were below an acceptable level of safety and 16% of them were failing to comply with legislation.
It would seem that, despite the changes introduced over the last 20 years, there is still more to be done to address safety issues offshore. Some industry leaders have even been known to indicate that many of the incidents since Piper Alpha could have led to multiple fatalities on a similar scale had sheer luck not prevented such an escalation.
Pressure to produce oil is possibly at its highest. The industry must be very careful not to put profit before safety. Compliance must be seen as essential and not as a hindrance to productivity. Operators are facing increasing costs of production, ageing infrastructure and decommissioning liabilities, and most appreciate that a proactive attitude towards health and safety will actually mitigate costs in the long term.
The challenge for the industry lies in not only improving the standard of rigs, plant and equipment, but constantly improving attitudes and behaviour. While the events of July 6, 1988, will be well known to the majority of people in the Scottish north-east, there is now a whole generation entering the oil&gas industry who were not even born at the time of the disaster.
That generation will eventually be responsible for the safe operation and maintenance of offshore installations and, as such, they must appreciate the lessons from Piper Alpha and the importance of each of their individual contributions to health and safety.
Penelope Warne is head of energy at CMS Cameron McKenna LLP