All accidents are preventable if safe work practices are promoted, human error is eliminated and safe work conditions are provided. The worst and highly publicized disaster in history is the offshore incident of the Piper Alpha that occurred on 6th July, 1988 in the North Sea killing 167men including crew men of rescue vessel with a total loss of about GBP 1.7 billion (USD$3.4 billion). At the time of the incident, this platform was accountable for ten percent of the North Sea oil and gas production.
The platform began production in 1976 first as an oil production then as a gas production operated by Occidental Petroleum. A large capacity North Sea Drilling and Production Platform standing in 475 feet of water with topsides and jackets with peak production up to 250,000 BBLS/d and up to 250men working on it. It was interconnected to 3 other platforms: Tartan 12 miles west of Piper and 18miles from Claymore which was 22miles southwest from Piper and MCP01 stationed 34 miles northwest from Piper Alpha.
The incident happened at 2200 hrs with an explosion and large oil fire, three significant explosions followed and at 2350 hrs the accommodation module toppled into the sea. At about 0020 hrs the entire platform collapsed. The direct and indirect costs of this incident are enormous and include 167 lives lost (165 crew men and 2 rescuers); Piper ‘B’ replacement cost 1,000 million pounds; Government revenue loss and insurance costs estimated at 2,000 million pounds; Cost to rest of UK offshore industry put at 5,000 million pounds to develop Safety Cases and implement Safety Improvements.
A video highlighting the sad event titled “Remembering the Piper - a night that changed our lives” was launched in July 2013 during the 25th anniversary of the incident by Step Change in Safety, this has been circulated all over the industry to re-emphasize the importance of ensuring safety measures are implemented during operations, eliminating complacency, promoting strong leadership commitment to safety and engaging the workforce.
The following are lessons learned from the piper incident that could be applied on current operations to prevent recurrence of similar disaster:
- The permit to work system did not ensure proper communications for the night crew operating the platform were not informed that the critical pump had been switched off for repair/maintenance.
- The control room was located above the production platform therefore the offshore installation Manager who would have communicated effectively died in the first explosion.
- Previous risk analysis of offshore structures did not focus on actual structural capacity.
- The design of the facility did not provide adequate protection of structures against intense fires such as blast walls.
- There were inadequate safety systems in place for shut down because Claymore and Tartan platforms continued pumping into Piper resulting in multiple explosions.
- Human or Management errors for inability to communicate effectively or/and implement safe work practices.
- There were insufficient redundancies in safety systems unrecognized coupling in the design.
- There was compromise of safety because production was ranked a higher priority than safety.
- There was no “shut down” plan during maintenance operations.
- The Person In Charge did not order emergency evacuation of all persons on board.
- The emergency routes were blocked and not clear for proper evacuation.
- The lifeboats were inaccessible; firefighting equipments on board could not be operated because diesel pumps were on manual mode.
- There was no emergency lighting to aid evacuation of team on board.
Currently, the oil and gas industry is still faced with the same hazards and challenges experienced over 25years ago therefore there should be conscious efforts by all to be responsible for their safety, that of fellow workers and of the environment.
A Memorial Sculpture built by Sue Jane Taylor inscribed “Lest We Forget” at Queen Elizabeth 1 Rose Garden-Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen. On each of the granite faces of the plinth is inscribed the names and ages of the dead from the incident; the youngest was 18 years and the oldest was 60 years. Under the plinth the remains of the unidentified dead are interred. The last body recovered was found on the seabed on 2nd June, 1989.
Written by O’ Reese on behalf of En-pact Solutions Limited, 2013
Twitter: @O Reese2