Remembering Pipe Alpha 33 Years On

On 6th July 1988, 167 men died following a devastating fire on the Piper Alpha platform, operated by Occidental Oil in the North Sea.  Only 61 people survived, some of whom leapt over 100 feet from the burning platform into the sea.  As ever, our thoughts are with those survivors and the bereaved families.

The Cullen Inquiry, which investigated the disaster, was scathing about Occidental’s approach to safety prior to the incident:

“The management adopted a superficial attitude to the assessment of the risk of major hazard.”

Not only did this attitude create the conditions where accidents were more likely to happen, but it also meant that the crew were poorly prepared to respond when one did:

“The explosion on Piper Alpha that led to disaster was not devastating…as the resulting fire spread…it seems the whole system of command had broken down.”

“The offshore Incident Manager took no initiative to save life…in my view the death toll…was substantially greater than it would have been if such an initiative had been taken.”

This was not, fundamentally, a failure by the individuals involved on the day; but a wider corporate and industry failing:

“The failure of the Offshore Installation Managers to cope with the problems they faced on the night of the disaster clearly demonstrates that conventional selection and training of OIMs is no guarantee of ability to cope.”

The disaster marked a watershed in the oil and gas industry, where health and safety now receives much greater attention and, in particular, the selection and training of Offshore Installation Managers has been revolutionised.  Sadly though, as you look at comments from more recent public inquiries (such as Grenfell Tower and the Manchester Arena); it appears that the lessons have not necessarily been learnt in other industries.