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UpstreamOnline: Safety first is lesson learned

Twenty years after the Piper Alpha platform disaster, the UK oil industy still has some way to go in cleaning up its health and safety act

TWENTY years ago Occidental Petroleum’s Piper Alpha platform exploded and caught fire, killing 167 people in the world’s worst offshore oil disaster.

The shock caused by the horrific events of 6 July 1988 left deep scars across an oil industry left reeling from the images of the fireball that engulfed the oldest and best producing oil platform in the UK North Sea.

A massive leakage of gas condensate from pipework connected to a condensate pump had ignited, causing an explosion that led to huge oil fires.

The heat ruptured three separate gas risers from other installations in the area, producing further massive explosions and fireballs.

Most of the victims suffocated in the toxic fumes, which encroached into the accommodation block.

By the end of the night, one of the UK’s major offshore installations was nothing but a burned-out shell. There were only 62 survivors.

The Piper Alpha nightmare was a wake-up call to the entire industry, with offshore operators carrying out far-reaching assessments of their installations and management systems, as details of the causes of the disaster emerged.

Lord Cullen’s public inquiry into the disaster severely criticised safety procedures on the platform, and made 106 recommendations for the future including placing safety in the hands of the Health&Safety Executive (HSE).

Since 1988, the HSE’s Offshore Division has frequently found itself having to deal with serious offshore accidents, which if they had escalated bore the hallmarks of nearly being another Piper Alpha.

In February 1998, there were two major gas leaks within three months on BG Group’s Rough field 47/3B platform, in a similar set of circumstances. As with Piper Alpha, management control systems were found to have failed.

UK operators have been painfully slow in learning health and safety lessons offshore.

Since the Cullen inquiry, there has been a string of major gas leaks, including one on Shell’s Cormorant Alpha platform in the late 1990s, on Amerada’s Scott field, on BP’s North West Hutton platform and Shell’s Brent Bravo in 2003. All of these UK accidents resulted in prosecutions.

The largest fine was£900,000 ($1.7 million) against Shell after it pleaded guilty to breaking health and safety laws on Brent Bravo, following the deaths of Sean McCue and Keith Moncrieff in the utility leg of the platform on 11 September 2003.

With ageing infrastructure, and some oil companies seemingly still willing to put production before essential safety spending, the HSE has finally grasped the nettle.

Its intensive so-called KP3 report released last year uncovered safety flaws on about half of the 100 installations it had inspected over a three-year period. With the UK’s new corporate killing legislation about to come into force, there are some positive signs that companies found to have broken the rules may face much higher fines in the future for serious safety breaches.

However, the safety watchdog is severely restricted in what it can release into the public domain by way of information on its safety investigations, because of current legislation.

There is an urgent need for the law to change this state of affairs by introducing transparent league tables that compare operators’ performance.

Common problems raised include a lack of spending on maintenance and new equipment, inadequate training, and insufficient staff numbers on installations.

Most disturbingly, workers who raise these issues frequently find themselves blacklisted or “not required back” into the offshore industry.

This intolerable situation has gone on for long enough in UK waters, and the government needs to toughen up the Health&Safety at Work Act.

The law needs to be urgently re-drafted in order to stop Big Oil hiding behind clauses of “commercial sensitivity” when it comes to open and honest transparency on UK safety performance.

After all, what have they got to hide?

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20 March 2008 00:02 GMT  | last updated: 20 March 2008 00:02 GMT

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