Lest we forget ’ the importance of health and safety

Tomorrow, Saturday, 6 July, marks the anniversary of the blackest day in the history of the North Sea.

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow evening, the Piper Alpha oil production platform exploded, killing 167 men.  The platform was stationed 120 miles off Aberdeen.

Throughout the global oil and gas community, men and women will turn their thoughts to those who lost their lives or were injured on that fateful day – family members, workmates, friends – and those that were left behind.

Risk is an inherent and accepted aspect of operations in the oil and gas industry and always has been. But a recognition of the need for robust health and safety policies to reduce that risk wherever possible has grown over the years to the extent that it is now very much front of mind for many companies.

Piper Alpha forced a major review of the oil and gas industry’s approach to health and safety. More recently Macondo in the Gulf of Mexico, where 11 people lost their lives in 2010, reminded us that, although we have come a long way since 1988, we still have much to learn.

The industry came together last month in Aberdeen for the Piper 25 conference, where Lord Cullen of Whitekirk, who chaired the public inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster all those years ago, stressed the importance of safety management and workforce involvement. The three-day conference, which was attended by Fifth Ring, was busy even right up to the very last session on the last day, reflecting the importance the industry places on this issue.

Risk, health and safety will also be the key focus of the second annual Offshore Process Safety Conference, to be held in Houston, on 11 and 12 September. Major players such as Shell, Petrobras, Apache, Noble Energy, Husky and Pisces Energy will join a further 200 industry experts from the operator and service sector to discuss process safety, HSE and risk management for drilling and production operations.

The timing of the event is important because November marks a major deadline for operators and thousands of contractors to complete audits of their safety and environmental management systems (SEMS).  The Houston conference aims to introduce attendees to the latest strategies for enhanced SEMS compliance, safety culture, leadership, drilling process safety and contractor management.

As an indication of the growing recognition of the importance of HSE and risk, Fifth Ring’s international emergency response team, which provides round-the-clock support to some of the largest players in the oil and gas industry, has seen a steady growth in the number of clients over the years.

It is absolutely right that the industry puts HSE and risk-aversion at the top of its agenda nowadays.  It is also essential that HSE policies accurately represent the needs of workers and companies to operate in a safe manner.  And these must be continually challenged. The review of HSE policies must be regarded as a test of their effectiveness, not an affirmation of  their existence.

At Piper 25, chair of the Health and Safety Executive Judith Hackitt CBE said:  “While the precise circumstances and contexts of major incidents differ in some respects, at heart I am left with the feeling that there are no new accidents. Rather there are old accidents repeated by new people.”

We have seen enough “old incidents” like Piper Alpha and Macondo to want to ensure the “new people” never have to experience them.