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Inspectioneering Journal

The Safety Advantages of Effective Dimensional Control

Rework and Safety are Connected

By Jerry Crawford at TGC Engineers. This article appears in the July/August 2014 issue of Inspectioneering Journal

Piper Alpha is an offshore oil and gas platform that suffered an explosion in July 1988, still regarded as the worst offshore oil disaster in the history of the United Kingdom.  The 25th anniversary of the disaster was commemorated across the country in July of 2013.  The accident killed 165 out of 220 crewmembers, plus two crew from the standby vessel Sandhaven.  The accident was attributed mainly to human error, and was a major eye opener to the offshore industry regarding safety issues.  Property damage from the explosion was estimated to be approximately $1.4bn.

The controversy around the incident was heightened when an investigation of the disaster by the Scottish Department of Energy ruled that the operating company had used inadequate maintenance and safety procedures.  The report made more than 100 recommendations about how safety could be improved in the North Sea.  This report is still cited 25 years later and is regarded as the foundation of the modern safety hazard mitigation procedures that we utilize today.

Piper Alpha was once Britain's biggest single oil and gas producing platform, supplying more than 300,000 barrels of crude a day – 10% of the country's total – from below the seabed 125 miles northeast of Aberdeen.  Oil was discovered at the Piper field in 1973 and was brought on stream three years later.  By 1980, the steel platform was modified to also produce gas and was connected by pipeline to the Orkney Islands.  When the platform exploded, 167 out of 228 workers on the rig or on one of the safety standby vessels servicing the rig died.  The platform was completely destroyed and it took almost three weeks for the fire to be brought under control by famed Houston wild well controller, Red Adair.

The accident cost the Lloyd's insurance market more than $1.6 billion, making it the largest insured man-made catastrophe in history.  The operating company paid $100 million to families of the deceased but escaped any kind of criminal or civil sanction.  On the original structure, the staff quarters were located well away from the most dangerous production areas of the platform.  However, this safety feature was diluted when the gas compression units were installed next to the central control room.

Further dangers arose when the operator decided to keep the platform producing oil and gas as it set about a series of maintenance activities and production upgrades.  This decision to expose workers, long term, to a combination of operational hazards and safety risks associated with industrial construction activities was the root cause of the Piper Alpha disaster.

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