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Piper Alpha: the legacy remains

On 6 July 1988, several enormous gas explosions and a subsequent fire killed 167 men at the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea, 200km east of Wick.

As the 25th anniversary of the disaster approaches, co-ordinated efforts are being made to inform a new generation of the inherent dangers of working on offshore energy installations.

This reminder is necessary in part because of the huge steps taken by the oil and gas engineering industry to improve safety on such platforms. It also serves as a reminder to civil engineers in other sectors where a methodical approach to high risk work must be adopted.

A public inquiry in to the disaster led by Lord Cullen resulted in the publication of a report in 1990. It made 106 recommendations aimed at reducing the risk to people working in offshore oil and gas.

Atkins chief executive for energy Martin Grant says the Piper Alpha disaster and the report into it caused massive changes in the oil and gas sector.

“The accident had as profound an effect on an industry as I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Piper Alpha

Piper Alpha: Explosion and fire killed 167

“There are a number of areas where the industry has changed, starting with its understanding of major hazards.

“Designing any facility with potential for catastrophic events is challenging for engineers. You need an understanding of the hazards and Piper Alpha drove the need to understand the science behind oil and gas combustion.”

The headline-grabbing recommendation of the Cullen report was a call to transfer responsibility for offshore safety from the Department of Energy to the Health & Safety Commission. This was agreed by the government and a new division was set up at the safety watchdog, leaving Whitehall to focus on energy policy.

But several critical changes to the way offshore installations are engineered were also introduced by the Cullen report. “There have been huge changes in the design and build of oil and gas platforms,” says Grant. “Safety is now built in from the initial sketches. If you have a safety voice in the room from the first day of deciding what a facility will look like then that is a huge influence.”

Regulations demand that safety is considered throughout the design process, and the engineering culture has changed accordingly, according to Grant. “You need safety driving all your decisions. We have that in place now but it took Piper to make it happen,” he says.

This change in emphasis has brought tangible improvements for those living and working on energy facilities at sea.

“Some of the bigger installations have a separate quarters platform so you are not living on the same platform you are working on,” says Grant.

“Also, with Piper there was an enclosed module, but now the walls will be removed so there is not the same opportunity for gas to accumulate.”

Other measures that have become the norm on such facilities include fire-protection coating of structural members and better positioned and protected lifeboat stations.

Workers are also better trained and overseen to ensure that information flow is as effective as possible on oil and gas installations.

“There has been a step change in culture,” says Grant. “A recognition that the human element is both our friend and our enemy. We need to embed a strong safety culture into the workforce.”

Many of the recommendations arising from the from the Piper Alpha investigation now affect civil engineers working in other sectors. Cullen called for all platforms to have a safety case agreed by the Health and Safety Executive, an approach that is replicated elsewhere.

“The rail industry has instigated something similar to the safety case regime,” says Grant.

Other lessons have passed across sectors informally as the engineering industry has evolved.

“There are lessons that have been learnt from Alpha Piper that are cross-industry. Also a lot of the systematic risk assessment techniques introduced in the oil and gas sector can be traced back to the nuclear industry.”

Grant believes the engineering processes of oil and gas installations now reduce much of the risk if established correctly.

But as always the possibility of human error remains.

“We have a duty to drive continuous improvement,” he says.

“If you look at what happened to BP in the Gulf of Mexico [following the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010] you can see that the threat of major accidents has not been managed out.”

Hence the need for a major safety awareness campaign on the 25th anniversary of the disaster.

“Twenty-five years is a generation,” says Grant.

“I was at the beginning of my career when Piper Alpha happened; now it’s not a million years before I end my career. The key question is: how do we make sure the learnings are well understood by the next generation?

“There are a lot of things in place to stop [complacency] but it is something we need to be alive to,” he adds. “As human beings we respond to big events and the closer they are in terms of time and distance, the more we respond.”

Twenty-five years after the tragic events of 6 July 1988, there remains a huge focus on ensuring engineers recognise the need for safety on their structures. “We have a big team in Atkins whose sole function is to improve the safety of oil and gas installations,” says Grant.

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