Piper Alpha – A legacy for those we remember

The 6th of July is a significant day not only for the oil and gas industry but for industry in general. Anniversaries present opportunities for focused reflection and this day I am sure will motivate many of us to press the pause button in our day to reflect on Piper Alpha and those who lost so much. 30 years have passed since that fateful day, and as we reflect on those who were lost we should also reflect on the legacy of Piper and what we need to do to ensure it never happens again.
My own memories of that day are very clear for obvious reasons. I crew changed to go home from the Ninian Central Platform. A late check in saw me pass through Unst in Shetland and then on to Aberdeen. After a journey in a hire car with three colleagues had me arrive at my home in Glasgow late that evening as the information started to appear on the news about the disaster. As this was in the days before widely available mobile phones, my recall is of my house phone constantly ringing till late and for hours the following day as family and friends checked if I was ok. I imagine this was something that was being replicated in thousands of homes. My thoughts then shifted to search my memory for those who I knew on Piper and my own behavior started to mirror those who were calling my house. How do I find out if they are ok? As the news bulletins increased it became apparent that most of them would not be - stark and vivid memories that are easily recalled in moments of reflection.
A normal function of emotion is to enhance memory in order to improve recall of experiences that have importance or relevance for our survival. Emotion acts like a highlighter pen that emphasizes certain aspects of experiences to make them more memorable. Memories of painful emotional experiences linger far longer than those involving physical pain. For those who were connected to or involved with the oil and gas industry at the time of Piper this will be self-evident. There is no doubt that the focus on safety and the efforts exhibited within the industry were significant post Piper. I could write pages of my own experiences of what was acceptable before Piper that became unacceptable from both a personal and organisational perspective after and how learnings through the inquiry were communicated and implemented. All of this was done with the best of intentions fuelled and amplified by the energy created by ensuring that the lessons learned through the 167 souls who were lost, made it different and safer for those still in the industry and those still to come.
As we reflect after 30 years, there is a need to do so with a healthy sense of unease and a need to ensure that the legacy of those who were lost is that of an industry which learns its lessons and is sensitive to the weak signals and warning signs that are the precursors to danger. The 30 year anniversary has been recognized and widely focused on by industry bodies as well as significant individuals. A lot of work, passion and energy has gone in to ensuring that, quite rightly, we don’t forget. However, as these various events and activities were taking place, they were to the backdrop of a number of sobering and arresting reports that had content we must ensure is acted upon.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said some operators had come “perilously close to disaster” in recent years and that more had to be done to reduce gas release incidents. The (HSE) Energy Division Director Chris Flint said: “Experience from our investigations is that HCRs typically happen because there have been failings across the board. Poor plant condition, and breaches of procedures are often immediate causes, but beneath that we often find a lack of leadership, a poor safety culture, and evidence that weaknesses have existed for some time, but haven’t been picked up through audit, assurance and review and then dealt with.” (Source: Energy Voice) "If you get the safety culture right, staff will be much more likely to spot hazards, challenge when standards aren't right, and be engaged in improvement." (Source: BBC). This arrived at the same time that DNV GL published a report showing nearly half of oil and gas professionals believe not enough has been invested in safety in recent years and that worryingly, less than a third were committed to remedying the situation (Source: Energy Voice).
Lord Cullen, the man whose work is rightly credited with having a significant influence on the oil and gas industry and its practices. When speaking about the Piper Inquiry in his keynote speech at the 25th Anniversary 2013 Oil & Gas UK Conference, he said “I was conscious that no amount of regulations can make up for deficiencies in the quality of management of safety. That quality depends critically on effective safe leadership at all levels and the commitment of the whole workforce to give priority to safety. “I saw those factors as intertwined with each other, and together making a positive learning culture and all that entails in the way of values and practises. It is essential to create a corporate atmosphere or culture where safety is understood to be and accepted as the number one priority,” (Source: Finding Petroleum). Five years have passed between Lord Cullen’s comments on leadership and culture being critical to the management of safety and the HSE comments that lack of leadership and poor safety culture are among the underlying causes of HCR’s, evidence of weak signals and warning signs exist.
30 years on the words of Sir Brian Appleton, Technical Advisor to the inquiry are like an echo to those above and seem as relevant today “Safety is not an intellectual exercise to keep us in work. It is a matter of life or death. It is the sum of our contributions to safety management that determines whether the people we work with live or die”. If we are serious about keeping people within the Oil and Gas industry safe, as well as seeing it prosper and succeed, we must assure that it does so with leadership that creates a culture that cares. Organizations need to assure “how we do our business” is as important as the “what we do” and that the legacy we create is that of a contribution and commitment to safe operations, the 167 souls we remember today would expect nothing less of us.
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