Steve Rae: Piper Alpha Survivor

Article by Steve Rae

Oil & Gas UK
Steve Rae speaking at Oil & Gas UK's Safety 30 conference in June

I COUNT myself among the very fortunate 61 who survived the Piper Alpha disaster of 6 July 1988, and as such have made it my duty to ensure that the legacy of the disaster continues to be re-visited, referenced and shared whenever possible with all those connected to, and, directly employed in the oil and gas industry.

On that night 167 men perished, while 61 survived. Those that survived did so because they acted on their instinct, they took decisions for themselves and chose to disregard the emergency training they had been expected to follow. Luck was also in play for many of us survivors.

I’d also like to think that my life, since the disaster, has turned out to be relatively normal! I believe this is due to me being a very resilient individual with a very positive outlook on life and can-do attitude. However, in the early days after Piper I often thought “how can I avoid being treated as a victim?”, which is often the case for anyone who survives a major disaster. At the same time, I had come to realise that many of the survivors were so traumatised that they were unable to function let alone return to a normal way of life.

Six months following Piper I took it upon myself to return to work I had enjoyed. Some years later my attitude and work ethic led to me gaining a position of some influence. I saw this as my opportunity to “give back” and use it to share my thoughts and learnings from Piper and to articulate my views on where the offshore industry needs to be, and go, with regard to health and safety. Ultimately, I wanted to do everything within my power to avoid a reoccurrence of such disasters.

During the last ten years I’ve given numerous talks and aired my views on Piper and safety. Through them all I have maintained a consistent message on what I believe were the contributory effects that led up to events on Piper, the loss of 167 lives, and what is required to develop and sustain a positive safety culture in companies and at work sites.

I refer to them as my six Cs:

  • Commitment
  • Change management
  • Control of work
  • Competence
  • Complacency
  • Communication

You may think that these are strange topics to have as your agenda to drive safety improvement as there is no mention or risk, ALARP, Golden rules hazard management etc.

My Cs are far more fundamental than these other elements which are used to support HSE activities across our industry. During my talks I use the following slide to articulate what you may expect to see when these Cs are overlooked within your organisation or at your worksites.

The 6 Cs

There is an abundance of independent research and incident investigation that identify these Cs as contributory in most incidents, in some case it may be one or two of the Cs, in significant incidents such as Piper all the Cs are likely to have been implicit in shaping the culture onboard.

Of these six Cs I see competence as the most important to focus on. As for me improved cognitive competence development has the potential to positively influence the development of the other five Cs.

In listening to the evidence given during the public inquiry and having studied the Cullen report I came to understand that Occidental’s management had failed to act upon warning signs received in the period leading up to 6 July, causal factors associated with the initial explosion were linked to poor work discipline, and the response by those in authority failed to interpret the magnitude of the event.

These points all suggest a lack of situational awareness and cognitive competence – demonstrated by a failure to respond to the signals and signs that were present, in advance, and during the escalation of events.

At the recent Safety 30 event I gave a presentation on the potential benefits of evidence-based development (EBD). If we are serious about developing a fully competent workforce, then EBD must be viewed as an essential element of any competency development programme. If we accept that when one becomes assessed as fully competent, in their function, then they have achieved a level of mastery. Then we must ask ourselves what is required in order to achieve and display that level of mastery. It requires that an individual be assessed in his/her workplace where their practical ability and cognitive development are assessed as they undertake and complete their given tasks.

Mastery does not happen by chance – it comes from regular practice, assessment and feedback at the worksite, where shortcomings in technical skills and behavioural attitudes are identified, discussed and learned from.

Our ability to undertake such development techniques is one of my main concerns. I believe that as a result of the significant downsizing of our organisations, arguably the first phase of the “big crew change”, we no longer have sufficient experience within our workforce to support a competency structure that delivers mastery.

I also feel that the training curriculum we have relied upon for many years needs an overhaul. Our “one-size-fits-all” approach to training is not achieving the desired result. I see it as more of a repetition of theory, a measure of recall and a copying of practical instruction. It certainly does not attempt to develop the cognitive (behavioural attitudes) skills of those who attend. So, I question how much value attendees and employers gain from this investment of time and money.

I think it’s time that we challenged the status quo of refresher training and also the approach to post-college/university competence development. I don’t doubt we have well established shore-based training programmes, I also believe we do a great job in initial induction training. However, I believe that there is much that can be done to enhance the offshore aspect of competence development. We have the technology and hardware to support such development, but as yet it’s not being applied. Assessing and developing behavioural/cognitive response characteristics should be a fundamental part of safety, and/or emergency preparedness training.

Remote assessment and coaching, by skilled assessors/coaches located onshore using video or real-time body cameras is something we could consider – we have the facilities. Use of visual and audio guidance provided at the point of use via smart headsets/visors etc could also be introduced.

Realtime feedback of the use of smart tools could also be used to assess the individual at work. Voice recording of toolbox talks, safety critical discussions, prompted collaboration techniques, situational awareness coaching, based on predefined danger zones and targets (think parking sensors), or how we use artificial intelligence (AI) to control the workflow in many onshore manufacturing facilities could all help support the desired change.

These are all smart technologies made available to us through the onset of the digital technology era. We use them to monitor, troubleshoot and predict equipment performance, and enhance productivity – why would we not look to do the same with our workforce development?

This may be the next step-change “performance improver” that we have been searching for.

Let’s not forget that us human beings are creatures of routine. Even the most spontaneous among us prefer to a follow routines and habits in life. For us, it is challenging  to try different approaches to the problems in our lives.

Yet, that phrase still holds true.

If you want different results than what you’re getting, you have to try different approaches.

In summary if by being more effective in developing the competence of our people and providing opportunities to improve our behavioural and cognitive attitudes we can improve their ability to perceive risk and improve their situational awareness, then surely its worth considering.

So, let me close with a call to arms. I ask that you make a consensus choice to make a difference in your workplaces by having a meaningful discussion on how your supervisor, manager or company could approach competence development differently.

Remember: You are free to choose but you are not free from the consequences of your choice. 

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 Steve Rae

Operations Manager, Well-Safe Solutions

Steve Rae has more than 30 years’ experience in the international oil and gas industry. He started as an Offshore Technician and was one of 61 survivors who returned from the Piper Alpha accident. He has since gone on to work as a member of the UK Step Change in Safety Leadership team and now works as operations manager at Well-Safe Solutions.

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