It might seem odd choosing this issue of Energy to mark the 25th year since the Piper Alpha disaster of July 6, 1988, but we have taken our cue from the North Sea industry’s three-day Piper25 conference on June 18-20.
A quarter of a century is a long time . . . nearly a generation in the classic sense and long enough for direct memory of Piper to be eliminated from corporate minds. By that I mean the “Great Crew Change” that characterises this industry in a very particular way. I’ll come back to this.
I was working at the Sea Fish Industry Authority in Edinburgh when the Occidental Petroleum-operated platform blew up, killing 167..
I felt the tragedy acutely, because commercial fisheries were then my world and had been on and off for a long time; plus I had spent time at HM Coastguard’s Aberdeen Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre from January 1983 through June 2005 and so had some idea of the variable oil industry attitudes towards safety at the time.
That brief experience as a wee cog in the UK maritime safety machine has stayed with me; it is always at the back of my mind.
When I joined the P&J at the end of ’89, the results of the Cullen Inquiry into Piper Alpha were not far off and I took a deep interest in the report’s many recommendations.
I especially noted that the industry was already investing £billions in getting its safety act together. It had been caught with its pants down and knew what had to be done way before the Cullen pronouncements. Little wonder safety was taken from the then Department of Energy and put into the hands of the HSE.
I remember the appointment of Tony Barrell as the first director of the newly created Offshore Safety Division and I got to know him quite well during his tenure.
His was a tough job and one made harder by competition for top quality safety professionals from oil companies and tier one contractors.
Nothing was too much trouble for Barrell and his team. They were open, including with regard to the battle to build and train the force of safety inspectors required to construct and police the new safety case-based North Sea regime.
Thus was created trust between people like me and the HSE; moreover … until quite recently.
Today, however, things are different. The HSE has changed. We have had to resort to the Freedom of Information (FOI) process in the hope that we will get answers to simple questions that would have in the past been answered directly and quickly. Someone senior would have been made available.
This is what we requested:
- Documents relating to the problem of recruiting OSD offshore inspectors and creation of the Energy Division
- Information on the number of non-HSE inspectors employed during the Elgin Franklin gas leak
- Information on the recruitment of HSE energy division inspectors
- Information on the number of HSE OSD offshore inspectors and the number of inspections/investigations carried out
In the event, there was a response … but at the 11th hour.
In short HSE, please stop messing around. If we’re having problems getting to the facts, one wonders how difficult it is for rank and file offshore workers and their trade union representatives.
Back to the generational thing and what the implications might be for corporate memory of safety critical incidents and lessons learned.
I’ve been trying to get a feel for what constitutes a corporate generation, but not getting back much in the way of answers. Is it five years, 10 years, 15 years . . . or what?
My hunch was about a decade. The one anecdotal answer that I got back is, guess what, about 10 years. So, that’s 2.5 generations of management since the disaster; basically ample churn to eliminate the direct corporate memory from much of the North Sea industry.
But then it gets more complicated. How many years does a CEO (or managing director) last?
Happenstance there is research on the topic and the Torygraph went to town on the topic on May 19, the catalyst being a study of 356 US companies between 2000 and 2010 carried out by Professor Xueming Luo of the University of Texas.
“With rather more rigour than The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, he discovered that the answer to corporate life, the chief executive universe and every kind of performance is 4.8 years. This is the optimal tenure for a CEO,” said the analysis.
“Either by sheer fluke or the genius of the invisible hand of the board it is also pretty much the average tenure for a FTSE 100 CEO.”
The reason why CEOs have a five-year life expectancy is complex, but the bottom line is that, by the time five years are up, performance is falling off and it’s time to get fired.
So that’s roughly five change-outs of CEO since Piper Alpha.
Then there is the added complexity of corporate lifespan, bearing in mind that many companies in the North Sea at the time of Piper have pulled out, merged, been taken over or have died, plus there are many newcomers. See more here.
The one truth in all of this is that safety is incredibly complex and perhaps why taking PERSONAL responsibility for safety is a matter for everyone in the offshore industry, not just the bosses.
And there must be absolute transparency.