Skip to main content

Piper Alpha – Learning from major disasters

Oilfield Technology,

By Gary Tomlin, Head of Safety and Risk, GL Noble Denton

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster when 167 people were killed in one of the most devastating incidents in the oil and gas industry’s history. As the industry remembers those who lost their lives during the incident, it is important that we continue to question whether today’s safety practices are robust enough to prevent such a disaster happening again.

Following the disaster on July 6, 1988, the UK Government acted swiftly to reform oil and gas regulation. Every offshore operator carried out immediate assessments of their systems and Lord Cullen’s official Public Inquiry made 106 recommendations, which were all accepted by the industry.

There is no doubt that these reforms have helped to improve safety, not just in Britain but across the world. But accidents still happen. Between 1970 and 2007 alone, more than 2170 people lost their lives in major offshore incidents, which could have been avoided.

So why, despite these sweeping changes, do accidents continue to occur and what needs to be done to ensure that this toll on life, the environment and our assets is reduced?

To answer these questions, GL Noble Denton recently brought together more than 50 oil and gas safety and risk experts for a conference on managing catastrophic events at the secure Spadeadam Test Site in Northern England. The site allows GL Noble Denton’s Safety and Risk team to undertake large-scale fire and explosion demonstrations with similar technical characteristics to real-life incidents, giving people the unique opportunity to see, hear and – most importantly – feel the force of a major hazard.

During the conference, which included a series of hydrocarbon release demonstrations and risk workshops, delegates agreed that the majority of major oil and gas incidents, including Piper Alpha, are caused by the culmination of a number of smaller events. Indeed it was the culmination of smaller issues that led to the Texas City refinery incident, which killed 15 people in 2005, and the Buncefield oil storage terminal explosion – the largest ever peacetime explosion in UK history – during the same year.

Combating the gradual deviation from optimal performance is a challenge for all companies within the oil and gas industry, and it needs constant vigilance throughout an organisation. Company leadership teams play a key role in ensuring that organisations do not become complacent and lose their sense of vulnerability. According to delegates at the conference, it is not enough to comply with regulation. Leaders must also drive the company’s focus on safety from the top and decide how much time and money should be dedicated to this.

As one delegate explained: “The minimum attention that a leadership team can give is compliance with safety regulations, but in reality, that’s a box-ticking exercise. Regulatory compliance might keep you out of jail but it won’t keep you out of a morgue.”

The GL Noble Denton conference also highlighted how companies’ leadership teams must do more to help their employees understand the human cost of a major incident. Oil and gas professionals tend to focus on the technical aspects of a disaster, rather than the lasting effects major accidents have on individuals and their families. During the conference, a team of actors was used to recount individual experiences of the Buncefield explosion, and emphasise this point. Delegates in attendance responded strongly to the dramatic portrayal of these events in a way they would not have done solely to a technical briefing. 

It is clear that a combined approach is needed to ensure the importance of safety is recognised. A combination of strong leadership, vigorous process safety and a curiosity-invoking safety culture could hold the key to ensuring that society never has to encounter the tragedy that the industry witnessed 25 years ago in the North Sea.



Adapted for Energy Global by David Bizley

Read the article online at:


Embed article link: (copy the HTML code below):