The major accident of 6 July 1988, when Britain’s Piper Alpha facility caught fire and exploded, remains one of the worst imaginable scenarios for everyone working in and with the petroleum industry. Its lessons are still relevant.
Piper Alpha at 30 – still highly significant
This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the disaster, when 167 people lost their lives. PSA director general Anne Myhrvold believes it remains relevant.
The disaster began to unfold after gas started to leak from a condensate pump. This was shut down for maintenance when an operating problem meant the other pump in the system had to stop. A failure of communication meant that the control room operator started up the unit being maintained without realising that the work was unfinished. The substantial leak of condensate and gas which resulted caught fire and exploded before anyone managed to intervene.
Two hours after the first explosion, Piper Alpha disintegrated. The bulk of the facility, including the living quarters, sank beneath the waves. One hundred and sixty-five of the 226 people on board when the accident happened died. Another two people were also killed on a support vessel which took part in the rescue operation.
“Although the disaster didn’t happen on the NCS, it’s important for everyone working in this industry regardless of country,” she observes.
“The accident served as a reminder that we must work constantly to prevent serious incidents, reduce risk and improve safety.”
The Piper field on the UK continental shelf was discovered in 1973 and came on stream three years later with Occidental Petroleum as its operator. It had been developed with one large production facility on a steel jacket.
This platform was one of the biggest on the UK continental shelf, and at peak produced more than 300 000 barrels of oil per day – or 10 per cent of total British crude output.
No other accident in the offshore petroleum industry so far has cost so many human lives as the blaze which began on Piper Alpha in the late evening of 6 July 1988.
A total of 167 people lost their lives in this major accident.
“The industry fortunately doesn’t have many major accidents to look back on,” Myhrvold observes. “That makes it all the more important to commemorate Piper Alpha.”
She says this disaster should be remembered both as the human tragedy it was and an example of what a major accident means for the industry and the rest of society.
“We generally take it for granted that everyone comes home from work as healthy and whole as when they left. That’s how it must be. It’s nevertheless important to be reminded that the worst imaginable can actually happen.”
Want to learn more about the Piper Alpha disaster?
Our Dialogue journal has taken a closer look at its causes, its consequences, and whether the lessons learnt are still significant for safety work today.
Myhrvold emphasises that Piper Alpha taught the industry many lessons, and believes the accident has had and retains great significance for safety work.
That applies not only on the UK continental shelf but also for the whole industry. Most importantly, the lessons after the accident are still relevant.
“We still see serious incidents, including on the NCS, which expose failings in key areas such as planning, expertise, management and compliance with procedures,” Myhrvold comments.
“It’s important to keep accidents like Piper Alpha in mind in order to check that we have learnt and, not least, that we use what we’ve learnt.”
Although 30 years have now passed, she says it is important that young people entering the industry learn from history and understand the significance of what happened on the platform.
“Risk isn’t something which can be reduced to arithmetic. All of us working in this sector need to be reminded from time to time of what can happen when things go really wrong.”
After the disaster, responsibility for safety in Britain’s petroleum sector was transferred to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It remains there today.
“Contacts between us and the HSE are close and good,” says Myhrvold. “We face related challenges, and ensuring that we maintain a good collaboration is essential.
The UK marked the 30th anniversary of the incident in Aberdeen on 5-6 June this year. Myhrvold was present at this event along with a number of top executives from the International Regulators’ Forum (IRF).
Read more: Safety 30 – Piper Alpha Legacy: Securing a Safer Future (external link)
“It’s valuable that safety regulators from around the world came together at a Piper Alpha commemoration, in part to honour the 167 people who died,” she emphasises.
“This also allowed us once again to assess the disaster in the light of today’s safety position and efforts to prevent similar incidents.”