LESS than three months before the Piper Alpha disaster I joined Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) as a process engineer, eagerly anticipating a role in operations on a major hazards site within what was then one of the World’s leading chemical companies. Little did I know that within months, ICI’s response to the disaster would have a profound influence on my – and many other young engineers’ – career.
The first impact of Piper Alpha for me, however, came in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, not only in the distressing TV scenes of survivors being landed in Aberdeen, but in the news that one of the victims was an Occidental Petroleum technician who lived just a few streets from the home in which I was brought up in the north east of England and who was well known on our estate. This was my first experience of process safety at a human level.
I am grateful that the response of ICI, a company renowned for its technical competence, magnified that experience by putting enormous emphasis on the human impact of the disaster. The group director of ICI’s Chemicals & Polymers Division – Brian Appleton – was appointed technical assessor to Lord Cullen’s public inquiry. It was fortunate for me and for many other young ICI engineers that the company decided to make maximum use of Appleton’s experience within the public inquiry.
At that time, all young engineers were required to attend ICI’s corporate week-long Management of Safety course as part of their professional development. I was lucky to attend one of these events at which Brian Appleton spoke on the lessons from Piper Alpha and of his experiences within the inquiry. I will never forget listening for more than an hour in stunned silence to his passionate emphasis on the responsibilities of management for process safety, and his emotional descriptions of survivors contemplating the choice of death by asphyxiation, burning or drowning – the situation in which the organisation had put them. A similar version of the presentation can be viewed below and I would thoroughly recommend that all young engineers and managers view it.
At a more technical level, as part of its communication of lessons from Piper Alpha, ICI formulated a model that it called “The Safety Chain” (Figure 1) to describe the integrated way in which process safety must be managed to ensure that hazards are controlled effectively.
Although this model appears to have been largely superseded by concepts such as The Process Accident Pathway, Six Pillars, and the Swiss Cheese model, I still find it useful as a consultant and trainer in analysing incidents and describing the key aspects of process safety management systems, in particular the central role of hazard identification. It is also interesting to note its allusion to process safety performance indicators long before they became mainstream.
A more lasting way of communicating lessons from Piper Alpha has been BBC Education & Training’s 1996 Spiral to Disaster. This is still used a focal point in the early stages of IChemE’s Fundamentals of Process Safety course and I would consider it essential viewing for all engineers. In training events, it never fails to generate interest and discussion, with its combination of recreating the key events of the evening of 6 July 1988 and its description of the key failures, even 30 years on from the event.
Thinking more specifically as both a process safety trainer and hazard identification facilitator, Piper Alpha provides a perfect vehicle for communicating the value of the hazard identification (HAZID) technique for identifying major process hazards early in the design process. HAZID could be expected to identify the possibility of a gas explosion in the confined environment of a gas compression module and subsequent consideration of the need for blast walls to mitigate against escalation of an explosion event. It can be argued in the case of Piper Alpha that the absence of blast protection, at least in part, led to escalation from two fatalities to 167.
So 30 years on, Piper Alpha still provides valuable materials for educating young engineers and managers in the fundamentals of process safety management. But for me personally, the most powerful lesson has always been the connection between process safety and individual human loss. Appleton puts it thus in a memorable quote from the presentation referred to below: “Safety is not an intellectual exercise designed to keep us in work… or to go to conferences or to hear presentations. Safety is a matter of life and death. And the sum and quality of all our individual contributions to the management of safety determines whether the colleagues we work with live or die. And on Piper Alpha, on 6 July 1988, they died”.
To view Appleton's presentation in full, you can watch the full video on YouTube
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