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SUNDAY HERALD: Sea Safety Flaws

Sunday 09 March 2008

Workers claim that lives are being put at risk as companies put profit before people

Judith Duffy

PIPER ALPHA remains the world’s worst offshore oil disaster after an explosion, followed by a fire, killed 167 men on July 6, 1988. Most of the victims suffocated in toxic fumes which developed after a gas leak set off the blasts and sparked the fire.

The platform, which lay 120 miles off the north-east coast, was operated by Occidental Petroleum (Caledonia) Ltd and started production in 1976. It was the oldest and largest platform in the North Sea oilfield.

As details of the causes of the disaster emerged, every offshore operator undertook wide-ranging assessments of their installations and management systems. These included relocating some pipeline emergency shutdown valves, improvements on evacuation and escape systems and Formal Safety Assessments.

The oil industry invested in the order of £1 billion on this and other safety work before Lord Cullen’s public inquiry into the disaster reported.

Cullen chaired the official inquiry into the disaster, which ran from November 1988, in two parts. The first was to establish the causes of the disaster, and the second part made recommendations as to the future safety regime. In a report in November 1990, Cullen severely criticised safety procedures on the platform.

Twenty years later, oil worker representatives have called for safety league tables for oil companies to be published to drive up standards in the industry.

Jake Molloy, general secretary of offshore trade union OILC, which was formed in the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster, said health and safety officials were currently restricted in what they could say and greater transparency was necessary as a deterrent to bad practice.

“Unfortunately the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is restricted in what it can actually release into the public domain because of legislation,” he said. “What we should really be pressing for is the government to change that legislation and have transparent league tables along the lines of schools, hospitals and everything else.

“It would act as a great deterrent to bad practice and improve performance overall. No oil company, especially if it is looking for investment from various finance houses, would want to be bottom of the league.

“You might see a marked improvement, and the workers on the ground would be able to reassure themselves they are joining companies and working with companies that are responsible in safety.”

Molloy said lives were still being put at risk because companies were putting profits before safety.

Among the problems which workers commonly flagged up included issues related to maintenance, investment in new equipment, adequate training and sufficient staff numbers on installations.

“There is still a drive within the industry going back to the $10barrel’ period of 2000,” he said. “Companies set their budget around that and have maintained that working level, despite the fact that oil prices have now gone through the roof.”

Recent incidents have included a serious fire last November on the Thistle Alpha rig, which lies 120 miles northeast of Sumburgh in Shetland.

Of the 159 people on board, 116 were airlifted to safety, but there were no casualties. Operator Petrofac was served with three notifications from the HSE in relation to the incident.

Two days later, a small fire broke out early on Shell’s North Cormorant oil platform, 109 miles north-east of Shetland, but it was put out in 15 minutes using on-board resources.

In the wake of these incidents, Geoffrey Podger, chief executive of the HSE, told the House of Commons work and pensions committee that offshore safety had improved since Piper Alpha but is on a “knife-edge” in some parts of the North Sea oil industry. and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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