Monday, 7 July 2008

Piper Alpha - 20 Years On

20 years ago today, the world's worst offshore tragedy happened in the North Sea. The Piper Alpha platform caught fire and quickly melted as crude oil continued to be pumped into the conflagration. 167 men died. Against the official advice, which had been to muster and await instructions, some men jumped into the sea. The only people who survived were some of these men.

The subsequent inquiry revealed a culture of neglect of safety in the offshore industry - although men I have spoken to who had been on Piper Alpha felt it was a particularly bad place. Communication and safety procedures were improved considerably across the industry. Yet ten years ago, when I worked offshore, there was still a macho culture of 'get the job done' and an approach to safety from management as a list-ticking exercise. This contrasted unfavourably with my work on a Norweigan rig, where safety seemed almost over-egged. Norweigans and their authorities then - and I suspect, now - simply placed more value on human life than the British.

One lesson that was learned from Piper Alpha was that safety was each person's own personal responsibility - personified by the Geordie who, on being shown our lifeboat muster station on a safety induction, said:
"You boys better be able to run faster than me - when I get here I'm off with the lifeboat, and fuck the rest o' yees."
With the current high price of oil and skilled staff shortage, it is tempting to go back offshore.

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