Sam Ash: Apprentice

Article by Sam Ash

Sam Ash

ON 6 July 1988 the oil and gas industry changed forever when explosions and subsequent fire on the Piper Alpha platform led to the loss of life of 167 people. In the years that followed Piper Alpha, the industry has used lessons learned from the disaster to implement a vast array of new regulations and improvements to safety. The lessons learned from Piper Alpha should never be forgotten. However, the industry will soon be arriving at a place in time where a large proportion of the workforce was not even born when the disaster took place. So if a new generation begins a career in industry without having lived through such an event, then how can the lessons learned be shared, and understood fully?

I was born in 1996, eight years after Piper Alpha, and I am part of the next generation mentioned previously. I started my career in the oil and gas industry four years ago as an apprentice through the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation’s (OPITO) Oil and Gas Technical Apprenticeship (OGTAP) Scheme. Since starting OGTAP my perspective on the Piper Alpha disaster and attitude towards safety has changed dramatically.

During the first two years of my apprenticeship I attended North East Scotland College, supplementing this theory learning with practical training in a workshop environment at Aberdeen Skills and Enterprise training (ASET). My first exposure to the safety culture of the industry was during these workshop sessions. I carried out task-based risk assessments, and the first section of any technical report I composed was the health and safety considerations of the job. These gave me a good understanding of potential hazards associated with tasks as well as teaching me methods of reducing risk. Although this introduction to safety was undoubtedly important, the consequences of unsafe work did not completely resonate with me until I went offshore.

Two years later I finished the college phase of the OGTAP apprenticeship and moved on to the two-year on-the-job phase of training. This consisted of two years hands-on experience at an oil and gas facility. I was placed on the Scott platform and sponsored by Nexen Petroleum. On my first day offshore I was given a platform induction. During the induction I was shown around Scott’s various modules as well as many different means of escape such as lifeboats and skyscapes. I remember thinking that I never wanted to be in a position that required the use of any of these pieces of life-saving equipment.

Throughout my two years offshore my knowledge and understanding of the practical application of safety processes has improved as I have gained experience. This helps me to picture the Scott platform in the context of the Piper Alpha disaster. I think of the lives lost in the tragedy and can relate that to my colleagues and friends offshore who have mentored me for the past two years. I now understand why safety is so important and can see the ways in which disasters on the scale of Piper Alpha can occur when complacency sets in and lessons are not learned or are forgotten about. For this reason it is vital that the knowledge and experience currently in industry is transferred from the current workforce to the next. This is sometimes referred to as “passing the baton”.  


I now understand why safety is so important and can see the ways in which disasters on the scale of Piper Alpha can occur when complacency sets in and lessons are not learned or are forgotten about

This cliché term is often used to describe a complex and very important transfer of knowledge and experience. It is vital for continued safe operations in the oil and gas industry and can help ensure that the lessons learned from Piper Alpha are shared and retained. However, the term to me conjures up thoughts of simply dropping the next generation into industry and letting them get on with it. I was recently a part of the closing session at the Safety 30 conference (during which “passing the baton” was a key theme) alongside Joanna Reynolds and Steve Rae. Reynolds is a geophysicist at BP and was the Oil and Gas UK Graduate of the Year in 2017. Rae was a survivor of Piper Alpha and after spending a few days with him and hearing his first-hand account of events that night, my eyes were truly opened to the catastrophic consequences that improper safety processes and procedures can, and did, have.

During the session at Safety 30 I challenged the audience to share just one lesson they learned from the conference with a colleague in industry. This was a challenge specific to the conference but I believe the same sentiment can be applied to everyone throughout industry during their everyday lives. I tried to practise what I preached when returning offshore and shared lessons I learned from Safety 30 with my work colleagues. I explained my new perspective on training and shared Rae’s experience on Piper Alpha and how his soft skills helped him survive on the night of the disaster. This is something that resonated with my workmates, and a stronger focus on soft, interpersonal skills within our team is now an important factor in our day-to-day work.  

As an apprentice, my attitude to safety, and perspective on Piper Alpha has been moulded through learning from, collaborating with, and – most importantly – being challenged by those that I work with. Lessons can be shared through challenging young professionals to collaborate with our more experienced counterparts. A “thou shalt” approach is no good. A collaborative “we will” approach to lessons learned from Piper Alpha will help ensure that young people fully understand why safety in industry is the way that it is today. I’ve learned over the past two years, from so many different people, that passing the baton is not simply about handing the kids the keys to the car. It is about ensuring that a complete and effective sharing of knowledge and experiences between generations takes place – in both directions. This, if done correctly, can help ensure that a disaster like Piper Alpha never happens again. 

We have added fresh perspectives each day in the run up to the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy. Read the rest of the series here.

Article by Sam Ash

Mechanical Technician, Nexen

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