May 302008
 

It’s almost a month away from the Piper Alpha tragedy which cost the lives of 167 men and led to major changes in the offshore industry. Jake Molly, regional organiser of the union Oil Industry Liason Committee believes the changes might not have been enough. Reading his statement on the Piper Alpha disaster and conditions today should strike a chord of familiarity in the maritime industry:

“This year, on July 6th 2008, twenty years will have passed since the terrible night which claimed the lives of 167 of our offshore workmates in the tragedy that was – Piper Alpha.

“It was a tragedy in many ways, but perhaps the most tragic aspect was the abject failure of the management systems and controls which should have prevented such an incident ever occurring. The subsequent inquiry found management controls such as the ‘permit to work’ system to be little more than a ‘paper chase’.

“There is no doubt that significant improvements in safety have been made across the industry in the twenty years since Piper. The industry specific regulations that have been introduced coupled with the installation of improved hardware ‘should’ prevent another disaster on the scale of Piper Alpha. I say ‘should’ because we can never say ‘never’. Regulations must be adhered to and the hardware will only ever be as good as the people charged with looking after it. ‘People’, are therefore key to ensuring safety standards are maintained and improved upon.

“With that in mind we should remember the words of the Occidental President, Glenn Shurtz, under cross examination during the Cullen Inquiry – “I had no reason to doubt that all was well. No one ever told me otherwise.” Twenty years ago people, and particularly the offshore workforce, were reluctant to raise safety concerns or challenge management for fear of being seen as trouble makers or not having the right attitude. Twenty years on many workers remain reluctant to challenge, and for the same reasons. Twenty years ago we had the threat of ‘NRB’ (Not required back). Today we still have the threat of NRB!

“I accept that NRB is not as prevalent as it was 20 years ago, but it’s the fact we are still living with it today which is relevant. Yet even where NRB is not a threat we still find major incidents occurring. Consider some of the incidents that have occurred down the years since Piper. Many of them could have led to multiple fatalities on a similar scale. In most cases it has been luck, rather than good management, that prevented an escalation. Consider also that in the run up to many of those incidents the workforce had been raising concerns about safety systems and hardware. Their concerns were either ignored or dismissed.

“In the run up to the incident which claimed the lives of two workers on Shell’s Brent Bravo in 2003, (which had the potential to kill over 150) workers were free to challenge management about safety issues but were ignored. Everything the workers had said was subsequently verified in the investigation into the incident. Since then, the HSE’s KP3 report has confirmed what thousands of workers have been saying for many years; that regulations were being breached and there is a lack of investment in hardware. In the run up to the Piper tragedy hundreds of workers expressed the view it was only a matter of time until a major accident occurred on Piper.

“Constructive dissent serves as an important monitoring force within organisations, a warning signal of danger ahead or of organisational decline. Industry leaders on the UKCS need to realise that internal dissent is not itself a crisis: it is priceless insurance against disaster. Until the ugly headlines appear and the consequences are unavoidable, senior managers too often forget that they will suffer more for ignoring principled dissenters than by giving them a hearing.

“Superficially manipulating a few priorities and satisfying oneself that everyone sings from the same hymn sheet does not constitute a ‘safety culture’. Beware of false consensus. “

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