The impact can be seen across the industry today and his verdict on the present state of offshore safety continues to hold great weight. If anyone knows whether the lessons of Piper Alpha have been learned, it must be Lord Cullen. He spent the best part of two years poring over the details of the night and taking evidence from huge numbers of people. The result was a weighty page, two-volume report containing a staggering level of detail, including a lengthy section on what sort of noise the first explosion made. No stone was left unturned.
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Holborn and St. Pancras On the night of 6 July there were men on the Piper Alpha platform, where they earned their living. Further explosions followed, and the platform became an inferno as gas from other installations continued to be pumped to Piper Alpha. Only 61 of those men survived —scrambling and leaping to safety as best they could. Of those who died, 14 perished while trying to escape.
The fire was so intense that it melted the structural steel of parts of the platform, and literally laid waste the fire protection that was intended to help survival.
No words can describe the horror of the explosions and the fire, but the horror can perhaps be gauged by the fact that some of the survivors, and, indeed, some of those who died, jumped into the sea from high up on the platform, although, in training, they had been warned that this would mean almost certain death. Five people even jumped from the heli-deck feet above the water. Great courage was displayed by many on the platform, and this was matched by the bravery and self-sacrifice of the crews of the rescue vessels, some of whom laid down their lives attempting to save people from Piper Alpha.
First, why did the disaster happen? Secondly, how do we try to avoid a future disaster? In law and in practice, the primary responsibility for safety rested with it. It failed to discharge that responsibility. Piper Alpha was not a safe place to work.
On the fatal night of 6 July, the night shift did not know what the day shift had been doing. The result was a gas leak and the first explosion. The automatic fire pumps did not work because they were switched to manual control.
Piper Alpha had no means of stopping gas from being pumped on to the platform. Other installations continued to pump gas to Piper Alpha and so discharged yet more gas on to the already blazing platform.
Safety and rescue equipment on Piper Alpha did not work. Life rafts did not inflate. Lifeboats could not be launched. Practice emergency drills had not been carried out.
Staff were not properly trained for the emergency. The standby vessel Silver Pit was, in the words of Lord Cullen, essentially unsuitable for the purpose of effecting the rescue of survivors.
The searchlight was not working. The Silver Pit was not sufficiently manoeuvrable. Its bow thruster broke down within five minutes, making manoeuvring it even more difficult.
Its layout was unsuitable for handling the injured. The Department of Trade and Industry boat was unsuitable, unserviceable and could not be launched and the crew was seriously undermanned. I have a question for the Secretary of State: is it true that the Silver Pit, found by Lord Cullen to be essentially unsuitable for effecting the rescue of survivors and for handling the injured, was subsequently bought by Cam Shipping of Grimsby, was renamed the Cam Spirit, and is once again on standby duty in the North sea?
Has the Cam Spirit been surveyed? If so, does it meet the standards which Lord Cullen said should be required of standby vessels? In other words, does it meet the standards that he laid down in recommendation 89? Is the vessel highly manoeuvrable and able to maintain its position? Is it rigged out is such a way that it provides full visibility from the bridge of the water line in all directions?
Does it have at least degree searchlights, capable of being remotely controlled? Does it have two fast rescue craft fitted with VHF radio and an adequate portable searchlight? Is there a means of rapidly launching those fast rescue craft?
Are there adequate means of communication by radio between the Cam Spirit and its fast rescue craft, the installation, nearby vessels and the shore? Does the newly rigged Cam Spirit have at least two methods of retrieving survivors from the sea? I am not in a position to answer the question myself because when I approached the Cam Shipping company yesterday, one of its staff was eventually told by the boss that he could not talk to my office.
But above and beyond those individual items, however important, Occidental Petroleum was responsible for safe operation, safety training and the arrangements for dealing with an emergency. He said that the system for coping with an emergency was almost entirely inoperative and little command control was exercised over the movements of personnel.
The importance of that is highlighted by the fact that most of those who followed the emergency procedures laid down perished in the fire. Most of those who survived are alive because they decided instead to chance it. There can be no greater indictment of those responsible for the safety of the platform than that the emergency arrangements led to mortal danger and almost certain death. Almost four months have passed but the Lord Advocate has not yet taken action. I only hope that the delay means that he is building up an unanswerable case and that Occidental will be brought to book.
Is a company which runs a rig in the way in which Occidental ran Piper Alpha fit to continue operating in the North sea? Occidental does not bear all the responsibility for the disaster. Some of the blame lies at the door of the Department of Energy because of its abject failure to establish and monitor a safe system of working in the North sea.
Responsibility for that failure does not lie only with the safety directorate or other officials of the Department. Under our system of ministerial accountability, it is Ministers who take the credit when things go well and it is they who must take the blame when things go wrong. To inspect those gigantic and complex structures, the Department of Energy employed just six professional full-time field inspectors.
Lord Cullen found that their inspections were superficial to the point of being little use … the inspectors were inadequately trained, guided and led … Persistent under-manning had affected not only the frequency but also the depth of their inspections. Only 40 per cent. He went on even to doubt whether the type of inspection practised by the Department was in any case an effective means of assessing or monitoring the management of safety by the operators.
Since Lord Cullen reported, questions that I and others have tabled have revealed further inadequacies in the Department of Energy as a supervisory body for offshore safety. For example, the Department cannot say how many prosecutions of operators have followed accidents and how many have resulted from routine inspections. We know that no prosecutions resulted from routine inspections in , or but that seven accidents in that time led to prosecutions.
The Department does not even seem able to distinguish between the number of serious accidents and the number of casualties. It holds no information on the hours spent on each inspection, whether routine or following an accident. No record has been kept of prohibitions issued under the Mineral Workings Offshore Installations Act All that we know is that only 13 such notices have been issued offshore under the Health and Safety at Work, etc.
Act in the past 12 years. In , the Burgoyne committee reported on offshore safety. It was dissatisfied with The current arrangements for offshore safety which had become a tangle of divided responsibility. It laid down that the role of the Government—I emphasise this—was to set objectives designed to achieve a uniformly high standard of safety throughout the Industry and to ensure their achievement through monitoring and enforcement procedures.
It recommended that the Government should discharge that responsibility for offshore safety via a single agency, whose task would be to set standards and to ensure their achievement.
The only dispute on the committee was about the role of trade unions and whether that single agency should be the Department of Energy or the Health and Safety Executive.
All the members of the committee agreed that the tasks laid down for the agency were so important and immediate that no delay in dealing with them could be allowed. He concluded harshly that the Department of Energy policy over the last decade had set back the development of the offshore safety regime by many years. He found that, although Burgoyne had recommended that future regulations should specify objectives, there had been virtually no progress towards the creation of new goal-setting regulations since the publication of the report of the Burgoyne Committee.
Lord Cullen went on to say that the effect of the policy of the Department of Energy had been to distance offshore regulation from the influence of the mainstream of practice in modern regulations on health and safety. Despite all that, the present Secretary of State was reported by the Financial Times as denying that the Cullen report was an indictment of his Department and inspectors.
Lord Cullen endorsed the main recommendations of the Burgoyne committee and accepted the view of the minority report to the Burgoyne committee that the single offshore safety agency should be the Health and Safety Executive and not the Department of Energy. That is the policy of the trade unions involved and the Labour party —a policy for which we voted on 6 November , and which five of the present Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, voted against.
I am glad to report that on that occasion, before you reached your present elevated position, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you voted with us for what Lord Cullen said was the right thing. Why, despite the eminently sensible recommendations of the Burgoyne committee, did the safety directorate of the Department of Energy fall so far short of the standards required?
Some blame must attach to some of the officials concerned, but more blame attaches to the politicians. Clearly, none of the succession of Tory Secretaries of State for Energy gave offshore safety the priority it deserved. All must take some share of the blame. So must the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the present Secretary of State for Wales, all of whom served in the Department of Energy at what the lawyers would call the material time.
None of them gave top priority to offshore safety. When we last debated Piper Alpha—on the day of the statement in November—I asked the Secretary of State what was given a higher priority by his predecessor than offshore safety. Answer came there none. Since then, I have discovered a public insight into what those priorities were. In May , the right hon. Member for Blaby Mr. Lawson was asked what had been the principal achievements of his Department.
Similar questions were put to the right hon. Member for Worcester Mr. Walker in May and March Reams of self-congratulation followed—2, words in total—but one word was missing, and that word was "safety.
Implementing the recommendations of the Burgyone committee on offshore safety got no mention. Similarly, no priority was given to safety by other Government Departments. Part of the responsibility for that lies with Lord Young, now discredited as a liar by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry.
Piper Alpha: Cullen Report left no stone unturned
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