Service for 25th anniversary of Piper Alpha disaster

5 July 2013
By Edd Gent
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The memorial in Aberdeen's Hazelhead Garden will host a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster

The memorial in Aberdeen's Hazelhead Garden will host a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster

The 25th anniversary of the world's worst offshore oil and gas tragedy will be marked by a special service tomorrow.

On July 6, 1988, 167 people died after a gas leak on the Piper Alpha North Sea oil platform ignited, engulfing the structure in a massive fireball.

Tomorrow's service, due to take place at 11am at the North Sea Memorial in Aberdeen's Hazelhead Garden, will begin after the flypast of an RAF Sea King helicopter from Lossiemouth – the first aircraft to arrive at the scene of the disaster 25 years ago.

First Minister Alex Salmond is expected to attend the service of remembrance and rededication which will be led by the Rev Gordon Craig, chaplain to the UK oil and gas industry.

Addresses will be made by George Adam, the Lord Provost of Aberdeen, and Geoff Holmes, chief executive of Talisman Sinopec Energy UK, the company that now operates the Piper field.

The names of all 167 people who died in the disaster will be read by representatives from the oil and gas industry and floral wreaths will be laid at the memorial.

Roy Carey, 70, from Ayrshire, was one of 62 survivors and will be attending the service.

"It gives me a chance to reflect on it. I do feel it's the only place where I feel a little closer to the lads that never made it," he says.

He also reflects on some of the safety changes introduced after the Piper Alpha disaster, which shook the industry and prompted an inquiry led by Lord Cullen that resulted in more than 100 changes to safety practice.

"A rig can now only burn the fuel that is on board which was not the case on the Piper Alpha. This should prevent a disaster to that extent happening again, but because that is happening in the North Sea doesn't mean it is happening worldwide but it really should be," he says.

"Safety, with science, should get better not worse and I'm hoping that improvements will be on-going all the time."

Safety measures in the offshore industry have improved by "light years" since the Piper Alpha disaster, but workers need to remain vigilant and be aware of the "consequences of failure", according to industry experts and union leaders, particularly in light of incidents like the Deepwater Horizon fire in 2010 that showed things could still go wrong.

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

"Over the last 10 years alone, we have seen the average of non-fatal injury rate drop by 33 per cent," he says. "On top of this, over the last 15 years alone, the over-three-day injury rate has dropped by as much as 74 per cent, 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."

Jake Molloy, regional organiser for the RMT union in Aberdeen, says the industry was well regulated but workers needed to be given the opportunity to raise safety concerns.

"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,” he says.

"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."

Molloy believes the anniversary of the disaster is an opportunity to make younger people aware of the dangers that exist in offshore work.

"It would be negligent of us not to enlighten young people coming into the industry about the consequences of failure and we've had no greater failure on the planet than Piper Alpha on our own doorstep so that has to be revisited for the sake of making new entrants to the industry aware of just how critical an operation they're getting involved in, what the consequences are if they become complacent or bend rules or fail to comply with procedures," he says.

Robert Paterson, director of health and safety at Oil and Gas UK, was part of a conference that considered the changes in the offshore industry since Piper Alpha.

"I think we're light years away from where we were at the time of Piper Alpha” he says. “Companies are required to carry out a thorough review of their safety case on a five-yearly cycle; they're expected to submit a summary of that review process to the regulator. The expectation is that companies keep themselves up-to-date.

"We have to make sure that the baton is handed on, if you like, to the next generation, that they don't believe that safety was somehow changed after Piper Alpha, it was all done years ago and they don't need to worry about it.

"They do need to worry about it, they do need that sense of chronic unease which keeps them vigilant. Safety is something that's never going to be done completely. It still requires people to be very active in their thinking about it most of the time. You should never feel comfortable that everything is OK."

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