Piper Alpha conference successfully shines light on safety

A panel of experts offered their opinion on the future of the North Sea energy sector
A panel of experts offered their opinion on the future of the North Sea energy sector

A survivor of the Piper Alpha disaster  helped close a major safety conference by challenging everyone in the room to make a conscious choice to do one thing differently to impact positively on safety culture.

“We are all free to choose what we do in life, but we are not free from the consequences,” Steve Rae told the two-day event held in Aberdeen almost three decades after the Piper Alpha disaster.

Almost 700 people attended Safety 30 which was organised by Oil & Gas UK in association with the International Regulators Forum and sponsored by Step Change in Safety. The event was opened on its final day by Scottish Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse who said he vividly recalled Piper Alpha and that safety should always be paramount.

Mr Rae - who has remained in the industry and is now an operations manager - made his comments at a final session symbolically passing on the baton to industry’s next generation represented by two millennials who won industry awards in 2017: Apprentice of the Year Samuel Ash and Graduate of the Year Joanna Reynolds.

He also issued a ‘call to arms’ at a separate conference session urging industry to think differently about the way the offshore workforce is trained.

Industry’s changing labour force learns differently and expects to see technology Mr Rae said, adding that there was little effort to assess and develop cognitive and ‘soft skills’, and that the offshore industry could learn about training from the aviation sector, which was integrating technical and non-technical training to build resilience in pilots.

The importance of ‘soft skills’ or non-technical skills (NTS) - described as communication, stress management, situation awareness, decision making, teamwork and leadership - was also raised at another conference session, which heard that stress “plays havoc” with situational awareness and decision making and that NTS training could be integrated with technical training.

Elsewhere, TAQA gave a talk describing how they have re-engaged their safety reps and safety committees. Safety is a ‘doing word’, delegates were told, and the HSE, companies, safety reps and Step Change in Safety can do more to work together to tackle disengagement with the subject among employees at all level.

A session led by BP explored safe riser inspections using onshore trials and offshore execution, and new technologies such as 3D modelling, delivering safer operations and cost savings. The operator also ran an interactive session showcasing a self-evaluation tool which aims to encourage participants to think about and take action to help improve their personal resilience.

Other breakouts included talks on the blockers and enablers to risk management; discussions around the factors which came together to cause the Bourbon Dolphin tragedy and whether it could happen again; insights over late life asset transfer; learnings around collaboration; an introduction to a new approach to bow ties in risk management; details of a novel risk assessment approach when considering the risk of losing dynamic positioning in marine operations and how new technology can help keep workers out of high risk areas.

There were also discussions on reinforcing the importance of learning from incidents and the safety culture beyond compliance. Delegates were also told to go and read again Lord Cullen’s report into Piper Alpha and not just its 106 recommendations that were all adopted by industry.

Deirdre Michie, chief executive of Oil & Gas UK, said: “From Lord Cullen opening Safety 30 to Piper Alpha survivor Steve Rae sharing safety reflections with two of industry’s next generation, it has been an engaging and insightful conference. The tragedy of Piper Alpha left a safety legacy that must remain with us - as we have highlighted these last two days - and I sincerely hope that we all now go back to our workplaces better informed, motivated and committed to doing our part to improve process safety across the industry.”

Chris Flint, HSE’s Director of Energy Division, said: “Lord Cullen and other speakers emphasised the importance and benefits of learning from past experience across major hazard sectors. It is clear that all too often the warning signs have been present prior to incidents occurring and if these had been recognised and acted upon incidents could have been prevented. A key to prevention is effective process safety management.”

Les Linklater, Executive Director, Step Change in Safety, added: “The Safety 30 Conference has demonstrated just how far we’ve come as an industry since that tragic night in July 1988. However, its also highlighted areas where we still need to make improvements in order to prevent serious- incidents and reduce risk to the workforce.

“Piper Alpha taught the oil and gas industry many important lessons but we must continue to challenge ourselves and make sure that we’re effectively managing safe operations and maintaining the trust of our workforce.”