Army Rumour Service

Register a free account today to become a member! Once signed in, you'll be able to participate on this site by adding your own topics and posts, as well as connect with other members through your own private inbox!

Piper Alpha - 30 years on

I watched the news reports from home, but got to work the next day and the Nimrod line was generating search and rescue aircraft to hold station over the rig and coordinate the rescue effort.

Several years later I was chatting to a bloke who worked for a company that certified oil rig workers for off shore work. He told me that the last part of the exam was to climb to a very high platform above the swimming pool, and they switched off all the lights. The workers then had to jump off the platform into the pool, in the dark, without hesitating. Hesitate or refuse to go and you don't get the certificate.

Further discussions highlighted that the best people to pass this part of the test were ex-forces. When told to jump they went, and the majority of the survivors on the night were those who jumped from the rig into the water rather than waiting for rescue or direction.


It was from (iirc) 64ft wearing a BoT trade lifejacket, and just to inspire you with confidence, you were told repeatedly that failure to properly tie off and hold down the crap design would either knock you out or break your neck when you hit the water. And you were also told not to be in a hurry to get in the water, hypothermia, not fire was the usual killer at sea. You were taught getting off a rig by jumping was very much under the 'absolutely don't do this if at all possible' category.

Little to do with wether you were used to obeying orders or not, it was down to the luck of the draw if you survived that night, the people who died trapped in the module were doing exactly what they'd been told to do, retreat to the accommodation module to await either the fire being put out or evacuation - no one in any of the planning ever considered the main gas line letting go, once it did, there was nothing anyone could do, it was a totally unfightable fire. The people who jumped into the sea? No choice if you are under a raging fire and its jump or burn. 9 of the fatalities recorded that night were in the rescue boat from Sandhaven, she'd picked up six men out of the water under the rig when a gas line parted. And once the line parted, almost no one else survived on Piper Alpha.

Training counted for nothing that night, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong - repeatedly, and in spades - and it was a miracle anyone survived.
 
Last edited:

doc80905

War Hero
I won't go into the details of the Permit system but suffice to say that we still use Piper as an example of how not to do a shift handover.

RIP
I work in the steel industry and Piper Alpha is often used as an example on safety courses of "how not to" as far as those things go.
 
5. The workers who obeyed what little safety training they had all perished - they had simply been told to stay put and wait for the helicopter.

What did those who survived do?

Did anyone find a safe area and wait it out?

Did anyone jump?
 

Dark_Nit

LE
Book Reviewer
Thre was an interview with one of the survivors who was picked up by a rescue boat where the bloke was stood somewhere near the middle of the rig with the fire at his back. The middle of the rig between the legs is full of cross bracing girders, pipework etc etc. His choice was certain death by fire or take a jump off the platform down through the middle of the legs.

It gave me a case of the wobbles just thinking about the choice.
 
Briefly:

You get a permit to do something which is signed off by a competent person to say that you have taken the necessary precautions to do the job safely. You should be trained as a permit receiver, and the permit issuer will be trained to issue permits.

It can get messy at shift changeover as the full details of the job have to be communicated to both the oncoming shift manager and the operations people to make sure that they don't inadvertently interfere / put themselves in danger by frigging about with a piece of equipment that is under repair / maintenance.

The permit is only given for a specific period after which the job has to be re-inspected by a competent person and the permit either extended or re-issued.

Once the job is complete, it has to be inspected and the permit signed off as complete before bringing the kit back online.

The Piper cock up occurred because the job was stopped at the end of the shift partially completed. The condition of the plant was not communicated to the following shift manager. This was due to a number of factors but one of which was the "area permit" system that was used on Piper, where permits were sorted by area.

The outgoing shift manager did not meet with the oncoming manager and the peprwork was dumped in a box for the following morning. Thus the shift manager was not aware that the equipment was still under maintenance and not in a fit state to use.

30 years ago I was a shift plant manager with Shell. We used to meet with our outgoing oppo for 30 minutes at the start of each shift (12h shifts) to get a full shift handover. We had a specific handover book which detailed the position of all jobs and and any issues including outstanding permits that would affect work.

Generally you would have the following types of permit:
  • Hot work (especially where there risk of flammable materials being present) - which would include welding, burning, grinding, drilling etc.
  • Confined space entry (obvious)
  • Roof access permit (fragile roof, working at height, plus often pressure relief valves discharge to the roof area)
  • Electrical work (ensure that equipment is isolated etc)
  • Pipe break in (breaking in to a line containing hazardous chemicals)
  • Excavation permit (buried cables and pipelines)
  • Other permits e.g. diving permit, high voltage isolation certificate etc etc
If you want to know more, this is the HSE guidance that we use and I recommend to people when we do PTW training:
http://www.hse.gov.uk/pUbns/priced/hsg250.pdf
Free download of pdf

As a H&S qualified type, I am aware of permit systems ;) I was more curious about the specifics of Piper Alpha and the specific failures.
 
What did those who survived do?

Did anyone find a safe area and wait it out?

Did anyone jump?


Most of the survivors were those who went from the main deck down to the spider deck after the first 'small' explosion and jumped for it and swam.
Some went off the main deck after jumping through the flames, not many.
Some jumped off the helipad after abandoning the accommodation module, at least one survived - that deck was 180ft above the water, theoretically an unsurvivable fall.
 
Most of the survivors were those who went from the main deck down to the spider deck after the first 'small' explosion and jumped for it and swam.
Some went off the main deck after jumping through the flames, not many.
Some jumped off the helipad after abandoning the accommodation module, at least one survived - that deck was 180ft above the water, theoretically an unsurvivable fall.

It was luck of the draw if you survived jumping off, I did look about wherever I was working for an 'Escape route' I often wondered if the moon pool would be safest evac route, thankfully I never had to find out. I was also on the firefighting/BA team for both Rig and Heli fires ( seperate courses) so I would have been one of the last to be evacuated or if in a part of the rig that cut off I would have to make a decision to either burn or drown. Thankfully again not tested on that I would like to think I would risk the freezing north sea than the raging fire of hell.
I hated my PETANS survival training and refresher helicopter evacuation drill ( the rolling passenger compartment) jumping off the platform and liferaft drills no problem and I never saw a fail on that part, but I did see fails on the helicopter evac. On one course we tried out the chute thingy (in the light & dark) no prob on that. I still believe I am lucky that a major incident did not happen on my trips, as it could have in an instant due to the nature and enviroment we worked in.

RIP ALL
 
It was luck of the draw if you survived jumping off, I did look about wherever I was working for an 'Escape route' I often wondered if the moon pool would be safest evac route, thankfully I never had to find out. I was also on the firefighting/BA team for both Rig and Heli fires ( seperate courses) so I would have been one of the last to be evacuated or if in a part of the rig that cut off I would have to make a decision to either burn or drown. Thankfully again not tested on that I would like to think I would risk the freezing north sea than the raging fire of hell.
I hated my PETANS survival training and refresher helicopter evacuation drill ( the rolling passenger compartment) jumping off the platform and liferaft drills no problem and I never saw a fail on that part, but I did see fails on the helicopter evac. On one course we tried out the chute thingy (in the light & dark) no prob on that. I still believe I am lucky that a major incident did not happen on my trips, as it could have in an instant due to the nature and enviroment we worked in.

RIP ALL


Best advice I ever had was from my first 'old 'n' bold', a Chief who'd been torpedoed twice on tankers in WWII.
'Take 10 seconds at the start of each shift to think through what you'll do if it all goes wrong'.

But even when you do everything right, it can still go 100% wrong, thats the nature of fire at sea.

BoT investigation into the loss of my old firms tanker British Trent found that they'd done everything 100% when evacuating the ship, everyone detailed off and checked for lifejackets, an orderly embarkation, all by the book and a model of efficiency… then the wind changed as they released the falls and flame wrapped round the superstructure and enveloped the open lifeboat as it descended towards the water.

That got everyone enclosed lifeboats and waterwalls at the embarkation stations, but 9 men had to die to learn that lesson that was no secret since WWII.
 
Last edited:

Dark_Nit

LE
Book Reviewer
As a H&S qualified type, I am aware of permit systems ;) I was more curious about the specifics of Piper Alpha and the specific failures.
Ok, it was a surprisingly simple human failure which kicked the whole thing off.

At the end of the shift, the outgoing shift manager is responsible for the condition of the plant and this has to be communicated to the oncoming manager. The engineer responsible for the maintenance task did not communicate to the shiift manager the condition of the plant (as the shift manager was busy) and instead filed the Permit (correctly) in a box in the control room.

Thus, the oncoming shift manager did not get a correct handover and was unaware of the condition of the plant when he took it over. But then he did not do a full and proper check on all live permits either.

Three small failures, the first being the engineer who failed to communicate with the shift manager that the valve replacement was incomplete. The second being the offgoing shift manager who didn't check the condition of live permits before going off. Thirdly, the oncoming shift manager not checking the live permits nor the condition of the plant.

Note that the first thing that any of our shift managers at Shell did was to walk the plant immediately after getting the handover. I certainly used to be straight out and do a quick walk around to make sure that all the operators were alive (ok, some were technically brain dead) and present and that the plant was in the state that I expected after the handover.

It is true that the paperwork systems on Piper were not ideal, which was later made clear in the Cullen report, but the ultimate responsibility lies (IMHO) with the engineer and shift managers and their failure to adequately communicate during a routine shift handover.
 
Best advice I ever had was from my first 'old 'n' bold', a Chief who'd been torpedoed twice on tankers in WWII.
'Take 10 seconds at the start of each shift to think through what you'll do if it all goes wrong'.

But even when you do everything right, it can still go 100% wrong, thats the nature of fire at sea.

BoT trade investigation into the loos of my old firms tanker British Trent found that they'd done everything 100% when evacuating the ship, everyone detailed off and checked for lifejackets, an orderly embarkation, all by the book and a model of efficiency… then the wind changed as they released the falls and flame wrapped round the superstructure and enveloped the open lifeboat as it descended towards the water.

That got everyone enclosed lifeboats and waterwalls at the embarkation stations, but 9 men had to die to learn that lesson that was no secret since WWII.

Best advice is from a 'Old n Bold' because they are 'Old b Bold' and have experience. I had a short contract at a Engineering firm and went out with a engineer who could do every job going. We went out to a boat builders to fabricate and fit, test pipe work on enclosed lifeboats used on Rigs. Once the life boat was starting to lower a pump would cut in and shower the craft with water, that was stored onboard untill it could suck up sea water. Had an airsystem also that pumped in filtered breathing air for the survivors untill they reached a safe distance, that the hatches could be opened (weather/enviroment permitting) again never had to try out for real, but knew how it worked due to training with PETANS
 

Yokel

LE
What did those who survived do?

Did anyone find a safe area and wait it out?

Did anyone jump?

There were no safe areas. The survivors had all jumped into the water - and were rescued by brave rescue boat crews. With no direction, men fell back on the little survival training they had - STAY PUT.

If you watch the video of the gas explosions you can see there is no way anyone could survive that, and the rig suffered significant structural failure and the accommodation blocks fell away into the sea.
 
Last edited:

FORMER_FYRDMAN

LE
Book Reviewer
Found this very lucid account on You Tube.


One of my wife's extended family picked up a QGM for his work that night.
 
Remember it only too well. Nearly lost my cousin. A few days before, we were at our grandfather's funeral near Aberdeen and I took a call for my cousin from one of his colleagues asking if he wanted a last minute job. He said no as he was cut up about our grandfather. Few days later he was also mourning his mate.
 
I think Lord Cullen's report is on the net somewhere.
I've met, and corresponded at length with Lord Cullen on offshore (and onshore) safety over the past twenty years or so, and I have the greatest admiration for his tenacity at getting to the heart of Piper Alpha. A copy of his Enquiry is on my bookshelf. I was on my Pilot's Course at MW, and the challenges faced by the aircrews in extracting casualties and survivors was sobering.
 

2/51

LE
Rather ironically, I was at one of the major offshore training facilities in Aberdeen this morning filming a new under water exercise for the OPITO Basic Offshore Survival Induction and Emergency Training course which is mandatory for all offshore workers. It also must be refreshed every 3 years.

I was an apprentice at Shell in the training department when Piper A happened. The next day at work I remember it being a strange and brooding atmosphere.

Later I worked for a safety consultancy who were employed by Elf (the people that took over the Piper field after Occidental high tailed it out of the North Sea) to investigate the issues of Piper A and to help design Piper B.

Elf also high tailed it out of the North Sea when serious safety flaws were discovered in Piper B and the safety systems in place.

I then headed up training teams for two software companies who developed Integrated Safe Systems of Work (ISSoW) as a direct result of Piper. Basically, its an electronic version of the Permit to Work. The companies developed them and my team developed the training for them.

My role now is heading up a team of Instructional Designers who predominately look at and write safety critical training courses for the oil and gas industry. We get inside Permit to Work systems, ISSOW systems, all sorts and work closely with OPITO on various survival training and other mandatory courses

Whilst we have safety systems, and platforms follow a very different design philosophy these days (new platforms that is), the major contributor to accidents still has not changed...humans.

I have been working with psychologists and subject matter experts to look at the real issue; People do stupid things. The worrying thing is that the oil and gas industry have shown little interest. All we hear is "But we have systems in place...."

The biggest lesson from Piper A was that peoples failings were to blame. Failure to communicate, failure to follow process, failure to act when they saw systems were not working and failure of managers to recognise a culture of fear whereby people were scared to act on their own initiative.

We had control room operators on several platforms looking out windows towards an inferno, too scared of the repercussions of closing down production and stopping the significant flow of gas and oil to the fire.

In addition, the fire fighting system had been effectively "switched off" as they had divers in the water at the time. Normally it is in auto mode to suck sea water up via diesel pumps, and distribute it to the fire fighting system. The pumps had been put on "manual" mode at the OIMs request. As the control room was destroyed in the initial blast, the fire fighting system could not be operated. That order for Manual Mode was a decision from the Offshore Installation Manager in direct defiance of an audit several weeks earlier.

The Cullen report is damming of management and of decisions taken on the day. It makes very sober reading.

The Wiki account is a condensed version and accurate.
Piper Alpha - Wikipedia
 
I watched the news reports from home, but got to work the next day and the Nimrod line was generating search and rescue aircraft to hold station over the rig and coordinate the rescue effort.

Several years later I was chatting to a bloke who worked for a company that certified oil rig workers for off shore work. He told me that the last part of the exam was to climb to a very high platform above the swimming pool, and they switched off all the lights. The workers then had to jump off the platform into the pool, in the dark, without hesitating. Hesitate or refuse to go and you don't get the certificate.

Further discussions highlighted that the best people to pass this part of the test were ex-forces. When told to jump they went, and the majority of the survivors on the night were those who jumped from the rig into the water rather than waiting for rescue or direction.
We have become so risk-averse that the training has become so benign as to be almost pointless. I did the dunker with the RN, in simulated Force 5 and above, in the dark. The last time I did an offshore refresher it was almost laughable.
 
A shame that also 30 years later they are now using the Deepwater Horizon as another example of poor safety process triggered after another human and ecological disaster.

Putting profits before safety seems easy, until the Board are threatened with Corporate Manslaughter. Perhaps Shareholders having to pay would also make the cost of safety more important.
The cost of safety is simply loaded onto the price you/we pay at the pump. Did bp disappear as a result of Macondo?
 
We have become so risk-averse that the training has become so benign as to be almost pointless. I did the dunker with the RN, in simulated Force 5 and above, in the dark. The last time I did an offshore refresher it was almost laughable.

The Survival course at South Shields Maritime college used to simulate a storm at night when doing the heli escape. The lights would go out, hoses would pummel us with directed jets of water and the wave machine made it feel like a gale force 8 wind had enraged the North Sea.

When I did a recent refresher, a mill pond could not have been calmer; and of course the North Sea (Northern or Southern) often resembles a mill pond!

Ridiculous!
 

New Posts

Latest Threads

Top