Piper Alpha disaster 25 years on

Safety measures established after the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster have improved the industry according to experts

The Piper Alpha offshore oil rig disaster. 6th July, 1988
25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy

Safety measure put in place after the North Sea’s most deadliest offshore accident have improved the industry, according to industry experts.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy, when explosions ripped though a North Sea oil platform, killing 167 men.

Experts and union leaders said lessons had been learned in the 25 years since the tragedy but incidents like the Deepwater Horizon fire in 2010 showed things could still go wrong.

The Piper Alpha disaster shook the industry, and an inquiry led by Lord Cullen to review it led to more than 100 changes to safety practice.

John Rowley, chief executive of Atlas, a UK-based training company for the oil and gas sector, said the industry was now among the safest in the country.

He said: “Over the last 10 years alone, we have seen the average of non-fatal injury rate drop by 33%.

“On top of this, over the last 15 years alone, the over-three-day injury rate has dropped by as much as 74%, but there is always the danger of complacency when it comes to safety.

“This can only be eradicated by ensuring there is a constant focus on health and safety, with messages being promoted and followed right from the very top of management, down through the ranks.”

During the inferno on July 16, 1988, 16 fathers, husbands, brothers and sons from the North East lost their lives and only nine workers from the region survived. Billy Clayton, 65, of Gosforth, Newcastle, was one among the handful of men to make it home.

The grandad-of-four leapt 175ft from the heli-deck to survive.

Billy Clayton from Gosforth, Newcastle, who survived the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster
Billy Clayton from Gosforth, Newcastle, who survived the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster
 

Mr Clayton, who suffered burns to his face and hands, broken ribs, and a broken leg, was working as a scaffolder at the time.

He said: “The first couple of years after the accident the doctor recommended that I saw a psychologist – but even they said there was nothing they could do for me.

“They thought that over time things would heal – it’s not that easy. It never goes away.”

Now 25 years on from the tragedy bosses have said that workers need to be given the opportunity to raise safety concerns. Jake Molloy, regional organiser for the RMT union, said: “Everything changed after the Cullen Inquiry and it’s well bedded in now.

“But as we saw with Deepwater Horizon, you can have the most cutting-edge technology on the planet available to you, you can have one of the best safety records on the planet, but if the culture on the installation and the management support side isn’t right then you get a disaster on your hands.

“We need an environment which allows workers the ability to challenge, to say ‘No, this can’t go on, this is unsafe, we want to stop the job’.

“Creating that culture, that environment, is the most important aspect to maintaining and improving offshore safety generally.

“Regrettably we’ve still got, even in the UK sector, bad examples.

“We’ve still got situations where workers feel unable, for a variety of reasons, to report or to challenge or to question.”

‘LASTING MEMORIAL’

Safety improvements in the offshore industry are a “lasting memorial“ to the 167 people killed in the Piper Alpha disaster, the Prime Minister said.

In a letter to Malcolm Webb, chief executive of industry group Oil & Gas UK, David Cameron said the 25th anniversary of the deaths is a “fitting moment to mark the skill, bravery and dedicated professionalism“ of offshore workers.

“The oil and gas industry is one of the UK’s greatest industrial success stories. The sector has made – and will continue to make – a significant contribution to our country’s economic prosperity,” Mr Cameron wrote.

“Conditions in the North Sea are some of the harshest anywhere in the world. The work to provide the fuels we all rely on is a triumph of technical ingenuity and committed human endeavour.

“In this testing environment the highest safety standards are paramount. I know how tirelessly the industry works to prevent incidents like Piper Alpha from ever happening again.”

Mistakes that proved deadly

AT about 6pm on July 6, 1988, workers on the oil platform Piper Alpha sought permission to stop work on the backup propane condensate pump, leaving a hole in the pump where a valve had been.

Just before 10pm the primary propane condensate pump failed. Workers on the next shift were unaware that the backup pump was inoperative, and started the backup pump. The first explosion was caused by gas escaping from the hole in the pump where the valve should have been, and was followed 20 minutes later by a larger explosion.

The failure of the firewalls separating different parts of the platform, a secondary failure since they were never designed to cope with an explosion, ignited the oil stores.

The fire was visible for 85 miles and felt at one mile away. Almost all the platform  melted  down to sea level. Some 167 people died, 165 out of the 226 on board the platform, plus two from a rescue vessel. The automatic deluge system was turned off at the time of the incident, otherwise it might have prevented the fire spreading. This was  to protect divers in the water near the intake, the system being turned off whenever divers were in the water.

At 10.20pm the gas risers on the other platforms burst. These gas risers were pipes between 24 and 36 inches in diameter, carrying gas at 2,000 pounds per square inch pressure, creating the inferno. The lack of inter-platform communication led to the other platforms continuing to pump gas through the risers on the assumption a lack of communication meant Piper Alpha was dealing with the problem, not providing a failsafe system. The gas risers were shut off about an hour after bursting.

The accommodation area was seen by many as the safest place to await rescue, due to some separation from processing.

While it may have been the furthest point from the fire, it was not smokeproof. For those who chose to stay, the decision proved fatal, and many workers were saved after jumping into the sea.

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