Piper Alpha 30 years on: why Grenfell had “echoes” of offshore disaster

05 July 2018

The Grenfell Tower fire bore “poignant echoes” of the worst-ever offshore disaster, the Chartered body for occupational safety and health said today, ahead of the 30th anniversary of Piper Alpha.

180705 Piper Alpha

And while the inquiry which followed Piper Alpha led to the introduction of measures to prevent a repeat incident, one offshore health and safety representative whose dad was killed in the incident expressed concern that significant gaps remain in worker protection.

An explosion and subsequent fire on the Piper Alpha North Sea oil production platform on 6 July 1988 claimed 167 lives. It was caused by a “litany of errors” and had some striking similarities to last year’s Grenfell Tower blaze in London, which killed 72 people.

Richard Jones, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), said: “This oil and gas platform fire and explosion was caused by a litany of errors, with competence, design and defence all found wanting.

“For example, one design-change involved the addition of a gas recovery module. This module was too close to the control room, which, during the fire, had to be evacuated, resulting in a loss of command and control.

“The automatic firefighting system was switched to manual and no one started it. Many people sought refuge in the accommodation block, but smoke gradually seeped in, as they waited in vain for instructions and rescue that, sadly, never came.

“The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy had obvious and poignant echoes of the Piper Alpha disaster and must equally lead to fundamental change.”

Mr Jones said there are three key elements to preventing similar disasters: ensuring key decisions and actions are taken by competent people; designing in safety from the outset of projects and making sure any alterations to buildings, installations and other structures do not compromise this; and having ‘defence in depth’, meaning there are controls in place to provide back-up if one measure fails.

A 13-month inquiry followed Piper Alpha, led by Lord Cullen, resulting in sweeping changes to make the offshore industry safer.

Mr Jones added: “Just as Lord Cullen’s report following Piper Alpha led to significant change, including the introduction of the ‘safety case’ regime in the offshore industry, so too must Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Inquiry into Grenfell Tower. We need a real culture change in fire safety, ongoing vigilance and collaboration on prevention.”

However, the impact of the changes in offshore have been questioned by Shane Gorman, whose dad David Gorman was among those killed on Piper Alpha.

Mr Gorman’s drive to improve safety standards in the industry has led to him becoming a safety representative and campaigner, and a member of IOSH.

Mr Gorman said: “I take some comfort in the knowledge my dad would be proud of the work I do to help raise awareness of the responsibilities each of us have to one another’s families.

“I have two young sons who are beginning to understand what happened to their grandad. Trying to explain to them that their dad has to go back to work offshore, and that he won’t meet the same fate as their grandad because the industry has ‘learned lessons’ is a difficult sell to a young mind, especially when I know there is still an awful lot of work to be done.”

Earlier this year, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said it had written to all oil and gas operators to express concern about gas releases in the industry, saying some had been “perilously close to disaster”.

Mr Gorman is calling for workers themselves to be fully involved and engaged in the ways they are protected.

He said: “Paperwork and permit to work systems have been constantly added to, mainly because of knee-jerk reactions to incidents that require immediate action. You are diluting the entire reason it is there, which is to focus the mind and get people thinking about the hazards of the task at hand.

“We need to see safety reps, committees and the workforce drive safety on an installation from the inside-out. These people know everyone and already have the respect and integrity required to involve and engage the right people to influence real change.

“Doing it this way will get into the blood and change the way people think about themselves and their responsibilities to one another's families.

“But, these influential people firstly need to be identified. They'll also need to be given plenty of solid, hands-on continued support and fit-for-purpose training to build their confidence. This will empower them to drive the creation of a truly positive safety culture on every single installation across the North Sea.”

Notes for editors

IOSH is the Chartered body for health and safety professionals. With over 46,000 members in 120 countries, we’re the world’s largest professional health and safety organisation.

We set standards, and support, develop and connect our members with resources, guidance, events and training. We’re the voice of the profession, and campaign on issues that affect millions of working people.

IOSH was founded in 1945 and is a registered charity with international NGO status.

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