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Piper Alpha 30 Years On: When It Comes to Oil & Gas Safety, Are We There Yet?

On June 5-6 2018, there is a special 2-day conference in Aberdeen to look back on the lessons that we have learned since Piper Alpha 30 years ago. The conference, Safety 30 Piper Alpha Legacy: Securing a Safer Future, will be held at the AECC and is sponsored by Step Change in Safety and Total E&P UK.

At Prodrill, Health & Safety is a key priority in all the disciplines we provide specialist recruitment for.  One of our key areas is the supply of highly skilled and experienced HSE consultants to our clients, who are responsible for people, equipment and infrastructure.

In this article, we briefly outline the biggest threats in the industry and the changes in safety over the 30 years since Piper Alpha, the world’s worst offshore oil disaster.

Challenges to Worker Safety

According to EHS Today, the greatest challenge to worker safety in the oil and gas industry is the ability to quickly and effectively respond to potential vast and serious incidents. A combination of powerful equipment, flammable chemicals and hydrocarbon processes under high pressure make for a dangerous environment.

After the Piper Alpha disaster on July 6, 1988, where one hundred and sixty-seven people lost their lives, the UK oil and gas industry has taken steps to improve safety through leadership, communication and co-operation. These steps are based on the findings of Lord Cullen.

Findings on the Management of Safety

Following an investigation into the cause of the Piper Alpha disaster, Lord Cullen noted that there were problems with the fundamental management of safety. It wasn’t just a matter of technical or human failure.

Some of Lord Cullen’s observations reveal that there were no clear procedures for shift handovers and permit-to-work systems, for instance. There was insufficient training, monitoring and auditing. Previous lessons from past incidents were not followed through.

Improvements to Oil& Gas Safety

Even now, the biggest threats to worker safety continues to be human error, worker culture, miscommunication and recklessness. To combat these, there is a well-established, world-class legal framework that was created post-Piper. The positive impact is evidenced in several aspects of the offshore oil and gas industry today. For instance, the total number of hydrocarbon releases has declined by almost 70% since its peak in 2004.

Last year’s Oil & Gas UK Health & Safety report reveals that the oil and gas industry’s 3-year average on non-fatal injury rate is less than half of the construction and transport industries. Managing asset ageing and ensuring that equipment and infrastructure are fit-for-purpose continue to be a key focus in the industry.

Future Considerations for Oil & Gas Safety

Yet, 30 years on we must ask ourselves if the lessons from the Piper Alpha disaster are still at the core of the Oil & Gas culture. As the industry strives for increased efficiency and lower costs, how much of this is at the expense of worker safety?

New operators enter the market, faced with a steep learning curve, not just for technical know-how but they also need to be fully cognisant of safety as a culture from the outset. How will these new operators ascend this learning curve while being nimble and safe at the same time?

As a generation of younger, more digitally-savvy workers enter the industry, we need to communicate in a way that motivates and engages them. Are we well-positioned to carry these workers along?

And what is the realistic role of technology? Does being safe mean we should depend more on technological advancement or should we be less dependent on it?

We invite you to share your thoughts on these questions and how you think safety has changed (or not changed) in the past 30 years.