The lessons that must never be forgotten

On the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, Alyn reflects on the improvements in offshore safety.


Published in the British Safety Council's 'Safety Management' magazine on 2nd July 2013.

It doesn’t seem like 25 years have passed, not even for those of us who were youngsters at the time and only experienced Piper Alpha from news reports.  Piper Alpha for us is no longer the name of a rig; it’s the indictment of an industry that cared more about profit than people, more about keeping the product flowing than keeping workers safe.  Piper Alpha wasn’t a tragedy, it was a disgrace.

It wasn’t the only incident in the North Sea at the time, either.  The Ocean Odyssey blowout that killed a radio operator sticks in the mind because it happened while attempts were being made to recover the bodies of those who died on Piper Alpha.  The North Sea was an extremely dangerous place to work.

There is nothing to be glad of in Piper Alpha but there is a benefit that workers have had since then which resulted directly from it.  The safety improvements in the North Sea have not completely transformed the working conditions but they may be responsible for the saving of many lives and the avoidance of as many serious injuries.

Certainly the Cullen report was effective in forcing through changes but it seems clear that the strength of the Families and Survivors Association and the impact of OILC were major drivers behind the improvements in safety and in forcing consideration of safety into the very heart of operators’ planning.

That has meant the North Sea has seen the hazards of rig operation reduced; large-scale changes and enormous improvements in the immediate aftermath and incremental improvements since then.  As a result, the North Sea now has one of the best safety regimes in the world.  A 2011 report by the Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority indicated that BP had a good safety record in the North Sea in spite of the catalogue of failures and errors in the Deepwater Horizon blast.

It’s not enough; there are still improvements to be made.  There are still workers at risk and there are concerns about ageing installations and the effects of less than rigorous maintenance and poor investment records.  There is a distance to go.  Our offshore workers, though, have the knowledge and the experience to continue making improvements and show the way for the world to improve workers’ safety.

That’s why the HSE was able to write in Tea-Shack News (19th June 2013) that the goal-setting regulations it has agreed with the industry meant that “Safety became the responsibility of those who create the risks” and how the election of Safety Representatives to investigate and inspect installations and what happens on them has improved safety.  The people best placed to make decisions are the people who are there and know how the place works.

That knowledge and experience meant that the story of improvement generated by the workers themselves was at the heart of the creation of the new EU rules on offshore oil and gas safety which recognises the quality of the North Sea safety regime.  The EU came to the issue after Deepwater Horizon and started looking at how safety and environmental impacts were monitored.

It began with a proposal for a Regulation which would have meant that someone in Brussels would have been writing the rules and operators and workers would have had to implement.  My MEP colleagues and I worked hard to amend the proposal; most notably to turn it into a Directive rather than a Regulation, making it more adaptable for the industry and the workers involved.  No office in Brussels lets anyone see what happens in the North Sea and no-one in any such office is better able to influence safety procedure than a Safety Rep on site.

The unions and the industry were massively helpful to us as we worked towards that – the facts and figures all came from them and the most persuasive arguments we deployed were given to us with all the weight of that knowledge and experience behind them.  We submitted amendments which changed a lot of what was proposed and we got a good result.

Victory was secured in May when the full Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of these new rules.  We’ve now got a framework which brings legal force to bear on EU safety regimes as well as ensuring that operators take steps to protect the environment.  We get to keep our world-class offshore safety standards and we improve our environmental credentials.

These EU rules are inspired by Scottish groundwork and they will become the gold standard for operations worldwide.  Scots offshore workers are global leaders in this field and they can continue to show the way forward.  There may even be opportunities for them to act as advisors in other areas of the world looking to replicate what has been achieved here.

It’s been a quarter of a century; the pain will not have faded for the families of the victims of Piper Alpha, the memories will not have faded for the survivors of Piper Alpha, but the industry has marched a long way.  I don’t work in the industry so I can’t know for sure just what conditions are like for workers, but I do follow developments and, while I have some concerns, I’ve been impressed with how safety has been improved in the last 25 years.

Whatever else we take from Piper Alpha and whatever else occupies our minds on this anniversary, we owe it to today’s workers to honour the memory of those who died by doing our best to make sure it never happens again.  The lessons learned must never be forgotten.