The Spiral to Disaster, the Piper Alpha

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The Piper Alpha refers to an oil production platform situated in the Northern sea operating under the Occidental Petroleum Limited. Before converting to a gas production plant, Piper Alphas operated as an oil production plant in 1976 after its initiation process. On 6th July 1988, an explosion occurred destroying the plant, killing 167 people and leaving only 61 survivors ("Piper Alpha Remembered." 10). Out of the deaths recorded during the explosion, two were crewmen from the rescuing team. The explosion resulted in massive destruction of a total insured loss of approximately $3.4 billion. During the time when the disaster took place, the platform accounted for about 10% of the Northern sea oil as well as gas production. This disaster was considered the worst offshore oil disaster, taking into account the impact on the industry and the number of fatalities. The Piper Alpha disaster is considered the worst to ever happen in the Northern Sea.


The Piper Alpha disaster employs the “Safety Case” methodology which includes an act of systematically reviewing the potential hazards arising from the tragic event. The safety case methodology is a nuclear industry technique which was employed after the tragic Piper Alpha catastrophe took place on the North Sea. The company went up in flame as none of the managers wanted to take the responsibility of shutting down the pump and cutting on the oil flow. The result was more fuel for the fire and consequently, more damage.

Accident Sequence

The main element of the Piper Alpha accident sequence has its basis on the management decisions during the time of the accident. The sequence starts from the management decisions made by the manager of the Piper Oil and gas platform. These decisions touch on planning, decision making, and role assignment for the workers within the plant. The management decisions that finally led to such a catastrophic disaster reveal the role of decisions and actions that can cause safety lapses.

From a report provided by Lord Cullen, the behavior-based safety management technique employed by the managers at Piper Alpha was faulty. The offshore installation manager panicked forming a basis for the primary events, which initiated the disaster. The manager’s action was ineffective and only worsened the situation. The panic led to some element of confusion where the Condensate Pipe A was restarted against the instructions of the Permit to Work system sheet (Wittkower et al. 938).

Also, as a result of panic, and, consequently confusion, the shift supervisors did not provide an explanation on the permit before transferring it to the contractors. Similarly, the contractor was not supposed to write the permit off without reading the content of the permit which was not the case in this situation.

The management system at Piper is faulted as the main reason and cause of the accident. The management had the obligation of giving a direct order to the board of operators. In addition, the management had the objective of ensuring that the subordinate objectives were in line with the organizational objectives. However, this was not the case at Piper as the contractors and the shift supervisors were not informed of their objectives. Moreover, coordination and interaction between the subordinates and the managers, which is regarded as a way of enhancing communication to solve problems within an organization, was lacking. Managers and subordinates rarely interacted to discuss the problems at hand.

Fact Analysis

The tragedy of Piper Alpha as indicated by ("Piper Alpha Remembered” 10) can be analyzed based on a series of known facts mapped against the timeline of events. The timeline may not be accurate as some eyewitnesses question the official timeline and how the chain of events took place.

12 July 1988 12.00 P.M: The two main condensate pumps, labeled A and B, altered the condensate of the North Sea platform to the coast of the sea. Earlier on 6th July, the safety pressure value of the condensate pump A was recorded as PSV #504. This was a risky value that prompted the pump to be halted for maintenance to be carried out. The plan of overhauling the pump was in place but not carried out. Rather, the pump was only temporarily sealed as the work could not be completed by the time the fortnightly shift was ending. After 6.00 pm, the engineer on duty filled a permit indicating that the pump was not ready for use.

6.00 P.M: The night shift had a total of 62 new workmen. The engineer did not inform the new workmen that Pump A was under maintenance nor did he provide them with the permit indicating that it was not to be turned on under whatever circumstance. Coincidentally, another permit had been issued that Pump A’s overhaul had not yet taken place after the previously filled permit disappeared in the control room.

7.00 P.M: Similar to all other offshore platforms, an automatic fire fighting system, driven by electric pumps and diesel was present at Piper Alpha. These pumps were designed to start automatically in case a fire broke out. However, during an emergency, the pumps could not be started manually by the people in the control room.

9.45 P.M: A problem with the methanol system, which had occurred earlier, resulted in the accumulation of hydrates within the pipework of the gas compression system. This blocked the pipework, and, consequently, caused the condensate pump B to halt such that it could not be restarted. The manager had to bring up the pump as soon as possible as the entire plant depended on the power supply generated by the pump. Several searches were made to determine if it was safe to start Pump A.

9.52 P.M: The overhaul permit was identified, but, not the filled permit indicating that pump A was not to be restarted under any circumstance. The manager assumed that it was safe to restart pump A.

9.55 P.M: Condensate pump A was restarted, an overpressure produced as a result of the missing safety valve from the valve. The metal valve, which was loosely fitted, could not withstand the great amount of pressure resulting in an audible leak, which attracted the attention of some workmen. This also triggered a number of gas alarms within the platform, including the gas leak alarm. An explosion then occurred before any of the workmen decided to act. The explosion blew away a firewall not designed to withstand intense explosions. The oil and gas production was ceased after the custodian pushed the emergency stop button. A condensate pipe was rapture starting a fire.

10.04 P.M: All the workers present in the control room abandoned the center. Emergency procedures were taken, and personnel were instructed to move towards the lifeboat station. This was not possible as the huge fire blocked their way. Therefore, they moved towards the fireproofed block for further instructions. No further instructions were given as the smoke and fire prevented the helicopters from landing. It was at this time when two men who attempted to activate the fire fighting system through the diesel pumping machinery were never seen again. A second explosion was heard after the manager could not turn off the Claymore platform due to limited rights and privileges.

10.20 P.M: After the tartan gas line reached a pressure of 120 atmospheres, they melted and later burst. This triggered a release of 15-30 tonnes of gas per second. This destroyed the platform.

10.30 P.M: A semi-submersible vessel reported at the scene using water to fight the fire. It was restricted for safety reasons.

10.50 P.M. A second gas line was ruptured with millions of cubic feet gas being ejected into the conflagration. This resulted in huge flames shooting into the air. Machinery and steelwork began melting down as a result of the intense heat which also drew away the Tharos. The Claymore platform later stopped pumping oil. The second explosion took away the lives of two crewmen from a first rescue boat and 6 crewmen from the company’s rescue team. All the people alive at this stage sheltered at different locations such as at the accommodation block or at the North Sea.

11.20 P.M: The gas pipeline linking Claymore Platform to the Piper Alpha ruptured.

11.50 P.M: The platform’s accommodation block which had been fireproofed slipped into the sea drawing a larger portion of the platform alongside with it.

7th July, 12.45 A.M: The entire platform drowned in the sea with module A being the only remains of Piper Alpha.

Causal Factors

There are several factors which contributed to the Piper Alpha tragic incident. Human factors involving human actions linked to the basic events of the tragic accident is one of the underlying causes that led to the tragic incident. The human factors can be blamed on the designers who played the role of designing and building the North Sea oil platform. Evidently, anything starts from making right or wrong decisions and taking appropriate or inappropriate actions. Every single action that the designers carried out was influenced by the decisions and actions they partake in that time. Considering Piper Alpha’s case, some of the decisions and actions were a pure reflection of error despite others being acceptable based on the judgments made at the time of their implementation. For instance, the designers had the automatic fire fighting system designed in a manner that the pumps could start automatically in case a fire broke out (Wittkower et al. 940). The designers did not design the pumps to be manually started from the control room in case a fire broke out.

The basic underlying factor which resulted in the tragic disaster at Piper Alpha is the company’s safety management of the Northern Sea oil platform. This failure came about as the Permit to Work system was not properly used. In addition, the inadequate management communication between the company’s senior personnel and subordinates also contributed to the tragedy at the platform. This is true as lack of communication contributed to a large number of fatalities and the company’s civil conviction despite not having remedial actions taken.

As previously stated, the PTW signed off by the contractor despite having Pump A shut down. Later, the second shift workmen identified that Pump B was faulty as it could not be started. They did not have a clearer picture that pump A was under maintenance triggering the fault on pump B. It was then that the workmen turned on pump A which was not supposed to be started. This was followed by an explosion, and the platform managers were still unsure about whether or not to stop the operation. The offshore installation manager (OIM) panicked, and he did not have the right to stop the exporting (Wittkower et al. 950). At this stage, a conclusion can be drawn that the company also did not provide the relevant emergency response training to its staff members being recruited within the platform. Furthermore, some of the workers within the company had not been shown where the lifeboats were located within the plant. Also, most of the platform managers were not fully trained on how to deal and respond to emergency situations.

Corrective Actions

Corrective actions, also known as preventative actions, are designed to prevent a similar disaster from occurring again. This involves the use of tools such as “As Low as Reasonably Practicable” or simply ALARP, and Quantitative Risk Assessment or QRA, which promote a better understanding of the risks and hazards associated with poor management systems in an oil platform. Segregating hazardous areas in an oil platform from areas such as accommodation blocks and control rooms should be a basic design rule in offshore oil platforms. This is done through the use of blast walls and firewalls. Having an active and a passive fire fighting system installed within an oil platform is also a desirable corrective plan which protects the recurrence of a similar tragedy within an oil platform. This is true as one may act as back up in cases where one of the systems fails to launch as anticipated. It is appropriate to have a number of escape routes which plays a major role in increasing the chances of escape in case there is an emergency such as a fire. This is also complemented by the availability of secondary escape measures such as nets and ladders. An oil platform should also have a regular safety training program where all new recruits are trained on safety measures such as emergency shutdown, exits and how to use protective gear in case of fire.

Conclusions and Summary

The Piper Alpha tragedy took place 25 years ago lead 167 people dead, causing property destruction amounting to millions of dollars at the North Sea oil platform. This was the worst offshore oil and gas tragedy ever recorded at the time. The disaster was caused by a massive fire which came about as a result of human error and decisions. All the underlying causal factors have their basis in the company’s management, design, culture and procedures employed within the company’s operability. If Piper Alpha considered factors such as engaging their new recruits to rigorous safety and emergency training program, the tragedy would have been prevented at an earlier stage, preventing the loss of human lives and property destruction. The management should also have been well prepared to deal with emergencies and arrange for reinforcements soon enough.

Works Cited

"Piper Alpha Remembered." TCE: The Chemical Engineer 866 (2013): 10. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

Wittkower Bob, et al. "20 Years on Lessons Learned From Piper Alpha. The Evolution Of Concurrent and Inherently Safe Design." Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries 23.6 (2010): 936-953. Print.