n memory of all 167 men that lost their lives in the famous Piper Alpha offshore explosion incident, today marks the 32nd year remembrance involving 226 men with 61 survivors with 30 bodies never recovered.

(Photo credit: https://poundforpiper.com/32Anniversary)

Lessons continue to be learnt from the incident. Some of the lessons have been instrumental in the offshore oil and gas industry globally:

  • Issue With Design: Management of Change (MOC);
    Closing out process of permit to work document (pump started before maintenance completed)
  • Process safety vs personal safety (shutting off automatic fire water pumps to protect divers).
  • Shifts hand over (poor communication between shifts operatives);
  • Emergency preparedness: Evacuation.
  1. ISSUE WITH DESIGN: Management of change (MOC) would have adequately considered the modification of the platform to treat gas that has additional risk of explosion. The lack of blast proof walls and the resultant effect on the control room at the first explosion made worse the incident.
    Lesson: MOC process should be used to evaluate and record any planned changes to safety critical devices, replacement of equipment with non- identical alternatives, changes to alarms or other operating parameters, especially those that are outside the safe operating envelop.
  1. CLOSING OUT PROCESS OF PERMIT TO WORK DOCUMENT: The lack of awareness of the permit for the removal of the pressure relief valve for pump A by operators although they knew about the permit for the maintenance of the same pump (but on another floor) which was suspended overnight.
    Lesson: All permits are issued from a central issuing authority or location and displayed clearly so that any related PTWs can be identified.
  1. PROCESS SAFETY VS PERSONAL SAFETY: A practice when divers went subsea on Piper Alpha was to turn the fire pump switch from automatic to manual. An automatic water pump would have prevented the rupture of the gas line by cooling the structure and pipelines.
    Lesson: Personal safety and process safety do link together; however, in process safety, the emphasis is on the prevention of high-risk, large scale catastrophic events that though thankfully rare, could have devastating consequences.
  1. SHIFT HAND OVER: This disaster was caused, in a large part, by the failure to hand information over from one shift to another. Publication from HSE noted that there was a breakdown in communication and the permit-to-work system at shift changeover and safety procedures were not practised sufficiently.
    Lesson: It is essential that shift handover is given an appropriate level of priority.
  1. EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS: The loss of the number of men was due to lack of ability to evacuate operatives. The helideck that the helicopter should land on was engulfed in black smoke making it unsafe for landing.
    Lesson:  An emergency preparedness is developed with the knowledge of the processes and potential consequences. The plan should contain actions for immediate response to the incident and longer-term recovery and response action.

With the growing and improved OSH globally, we hope there will never be another incident close to Piper Alpha.

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