This year marks the 30th anniversary of the deadliest offshore disaster in history, when the Piper Alpha platform burst into flames, killing 167 of the 228 people either working on the rig or patrolling in a safety vessel nearby. Thirty people were never accounted for.
An investigation later found that the operator Occidental Petroleum’s safety procedures had been grossly inadequate – the resulting report into the disaster by Lord Cullen made over 100 recommendations on improving health and safety offshore.
Piper Alpha was originally an oil-only platform but was fitted for gas production in 1980. Before the rig’s modification to include gas, staff quarters were kept well away from the most dangerous production components of the rig. But afterwards, gas compression units were placed next to the control room.
The safety problems were compounded when the operator decided it would not stop oil and gas production as it carried out construction, maintenance and upgrade works. On the night of the disaster, following a shift change, staff did not realise they were not supposed to be using a piece of pipework that was sealed with a temporary cover and which had no safety valve.
An ensuing gas leak caused a mass explosion and the platform went up in flames. The raging fire was not fully brought under control until three weeks later. The disaster that killed 167 has to this day cast a shadow over the affected families, the offshore workforce, and their communities.
Unite and other offshore unions both in the UK and Denmark and Norway have committed themselves to ensuring that another Piper Alpha disaster never happens again.
The Offshore Coordinating Group, including Unite, RMT, GMB, Nautilus International and Balpa, along with Danish union Dansk Metal and Norwegian union Industri Energi, convened in Aberdeen this week for a “Reflections on Piper Alpha” conference.
Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke said the purpose of the conference was to both commemorate those who’ve lost their lives and ensure that each and every lesson from the Alpha Piper disaster is learned.
“It was also a great opportunity to work together with our offshore sister unions in the UK and as well as in Denmark and Norway,” he said.
“Offshore workers in the North Sea toil under the most dangerous conditions in the world,” Burke told UNITElive. “Health and safety is vital; despite oil being a major cash-generating industry, we absolutely cannot accept any cutting of corners that puts workers’ lives at risk.
Many of the same health and safety issues that plagued the industry at the time of the Piper Alpha tragedy are resurfacing — a fact that was highlighted at the conference.
“Work/life balance is a major issue, with workers being expected to take on longer and longer shifts and to spend less time onshore between shifts,” Burke noted. “Another issue we are campaigning on is helicopter safety. It is just as important for workers to travel safely offshore and return home as it is for them to be safe while they are working.
“We cannot allow the industry and its penchant for cutting safety corners to profit off the backs of workers’ lives,” he said. “Offshore unions stand firm together in our commitment as we say to the industry in no uncertain terms – never again.”
Unite regional officer Tommy Campbell and Offshore Coordinating Group chairman Tommy Campbell agreed.
“The trade unions are extremely concerned about the impact of the low oil price, the drive to improve efficiency and increase production, and the continuing pressure to reduce costs at all costs,” he told Energy Voice.
“As we reflect on the tragic events of 1988 and Piper Alpha, we feel the tone of our ‘Reflections’ conference and the content should serve as a timely reminder to industry that the most important element of their operations is, and will always remain, the offshore workers we represent. ”
At the conference, Campbell recited the poem “Death of a Piper” written by Piper Alpha survivor John Fyvie. You can read the poem republished on UNITELive here.