Piper Alpha Disaster

On the 25th anniversary of Piper Alpha disaster Aberdeen South MP, Dame Anne Begg spoke in a debate in the chamber about how the tragedy affected communities in the North East. The full text from Dame Anne’s speech is below:

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), who knows as well as any and perhaps better than most that things changed forever as a result of the events of 6 July 1988. They changed for the families, the wives, the children and the parents of the 167 who died. Things changed for the 61 who survived, who remain haunted 25 years on by the memories they still have of the events of that day. Many of those men still live with both the physical as well as the mental scars of surviving when so many others—colleagues and friends—did not.

“Things changed forever, too, for the families of the survivors who have had to live with the effects on their loved ones and on the communities from which the men who died came. I know that things changed for my neighbours who worked offshore when they suddenly realised, “There but for the grace of God”; it was not until the Piper Alpha disaster that they realised just how dangerous the job was. It certainly changed forever the offshore oil and gas industry, which woke up to the dangers of the business and how heavy a price had to be paid if safety was not embedded into everything it did. Here was a stark and tragic illustration of just how important a strict safety regime is, and how crucial it is to carry out maintenance in a timely and safe manner, in order to keep the workers safe. It is terrible that it took the worst offshore disaster in history to act as a wake-up call to an industry that had in many ways behaved like the Klondikers of the American west.

“The biggest change, of course, was the implementation of all 106 recommendations of Lord Cullen’s report. All those recommendations were accepted by both the Government and the industry, and the offshore culture did change. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North, I think the most significant recommendation was that the Department of Energy could no longer be the regulator of the industry, and responsibility was passed to the Health and Safety Executive.

“When I was a student, I worked in the purchasing department of Occidental’s headquarters in Aberdeen throughout the summer of 1977. Occidental was the operator of Piper Alpha, and it was found culpable by Lord Cullen’s inquiry. Despite that, no one was prosecuted. It was enough, however, for Occidental to disappear as a company and in a supreme irony, the building that housed Occidental in Aberdeen, where I had worked throughout that summer, became the home of the Health and Safety Executive, and it was renamed “Lord Cullen House”.

“On Saturday morning, I attended the incredibly moving ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary in Hazlehead park at the Piper Alpha memorial garden in my constituency. There was much poignancy—a fly past of a Sea King helicopter, the seven minutes it took to read out all 167 names and the touching of the memorial. Some may say that marking the anniversary of such a disaster is somehow maudlin, wallowing in tragedy and should be only for those directly affected, but I am not one of them. The memorial is very important for the whole offshore industry. It acts as a stark reminder of just how important it is to take safety seriously, never to let standards slip and to listen to people who are expressing concerns about particular working practices. Memories do fade, and attention to a safety regime can fade too, so regular reminders of what can happen when safety is not at the forefront of people’s minds are necessary as well.

“Although there has been a step change in safety in the offshore industry and attention to safety is much more prominent now, it remains a dangerous industry. Lives were lost most recently in the helicopter crash of 2009 when 16 people died. Remembering events such as Piper Alpha forces those working in the industry to pause and to take stock of what improvements could be made, to shake out any complacency that may have crept in, to emphasise the need for regulations and to question whether there are enough inspectors of a high standard working in the HSE’s new energy division to keep an eye on the ageing infrastructure in the North sea.

“The offshore industry is not only important to the economy and prosperity of the north-east of Scotland but is one of the main economic drivers of the UK economy. It is a crucial industry, but the wealth it creates should not come at the cost of the lives and well-being of the people who work in it. The 25th anniversary of tragic events such as Piper Alpha serves to remind us all of how high the human cost can be in making sure that the oil and gas on which we all depend in our daily lives keeps flowing.”

You can access the text from the full debate here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm130711/debtext/130711-0003.htm#130711-0003.htm_spnew58.