Piper Alpha: 20 years on

United Kingdom

6 July 2008 marked the 20-year anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster. It was the world’s worst offshore oil disaster to date, in terms of lives lost and impact to industry, claiming the lives of 167 men and leaving only 62 survivors. It also served as a catalyst for reform of the UK’s entire offshore health and safety regime.

On 6 July 1988, a leakage of gas condensate ignited on the Occidental Petroleum-operated platform, 193 km northeast of Aberdeen, causing an explosion. This led to large oil fires, the heat of which ruptured a gas riser, producing a further massive explosion and fireball that engulfed and destroyed the entire platform. All of this took just 22 minutes. The scale of the disaster was unprecedented.

It is estimated that more than £1 billion was invested in safety measures in the immediate aftermath of Piper Alpha. This was the start of a sea change in attitude to safety offshore.

In 1998, Lord Cullen was appointed to chair the official public inquiry, the aim of which was to review the causes of the disaster and to make recommendations for reforms to prevent further catastrophes. His report identified a catalogue of errors which contributed to the severity of the incident. Lord Cullen’s Report brought to light substantial and significant failings in the UK offshore safety regime as a whole, and made 106 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Government and by industry. The previous ‘prescriptive’ approach to health and safety was replaced by a ‘goal-setting’ regime, which, as it involves continuous self-monitoring and safety assessment, was seen as a way of encouraging a more safety conscious culture offshore.

Many are surprised to learn that despite the enormity of the incident, no prosecutions were ever brought as a result of the tragedy. As Lord Brennan said in the House of Lords: “How can it be that such events can occur, and be found to have occurred as the result of the grossest of negligence, yet no one suffers a criminal penalty?” Twenty years on, responsibility for death in the workplace is now being addressed by way of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, which came into force on 6 April 2008. As discussed in previous editions of this newsletter, the Act creates a new statutory offence of corporate manslaughter (to be known as corporate homicide in Scotland), where a fatality is caused by the ‘gross breach’ of a duty of care, and where the actions of the company’s senior management played a ‘substantial’ part in the breach.

As a result of the Act, any workplace incident in the UK (including offshore installations) leading to a fatality may result in a corporate manslaughter (or corporate homicide) investigation. Such investigations will be lengthy, intrusive and damaging to businesses, and will focus on the entire safety management system of the company.

To view our Health and Safety Newsletter, March 2008, click here.