Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/773/17087
Piper Alpha: The price of profit - 167 workers' lives
Philip Stott, Socialist Party Scotland
Twenty five years ago, on 6 July 1988, the Piper Alpha North Sea oil platform was destroyed by a massive explosion and fire which killed 167 workers.
Immediately following the catastrophe - the worst ever in the industry - oil workers and union activists inundated the press in Scotland with horror stories about the lack of safety.
The OILC trade union (Offshore Industry Liaison Committee) was set up as a direct result of Piper Alpha and the death of another worker a few weeks later on the Ocean Odyssey platform. The OILC is now part of the RMT trade union with around 2,500 members.
From the 226 men on board, only 61 survived. Two workers from one of the rescue vessels also died. The explosion was caused by a gas leak in an area where a valve had not been replaced.
The platform's firewalls around the explosion were destroyed, they were not designed to withstand the force of an explosion from gas because Piper Alpha had been an oil platform in the mid 1970s.
Fire engulfed the accommodation units, the galley and eventually the helideck and almost all of the platform.
Many workers died through smoke inhalation. A pipeline carrying gas ruptured, leading to another massive explosion.
Incredibly two neighbouring platforms continued to pump oil to Piper Alpha after the first explosion occurred. It was only after the second explosion that the order was given to stop.
The owners, Occidental, did not issue instructions to stop the flow of oil because of the costs involved.
In a desperate attempt to survive, some men were forced to jump over 100 feet in to the sea below. The sea was burning as well.
Not surprisingly 70% of the survivors have suffered or are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
In the years preceding Piper Alpha the number of incidents in the North Sea had escalated dramatically.
As we wrote in the front page of the Militant (the predecessor of the Socialist) at the time of the explosion: "The number of serious incidents jumped from 44 in 1984 to 85 in 1985 and 72 in 1986". The Piper Alpha explosion had been the third in a week in the North Sea sector.
Occidental had turned down safety requests by workers following an explosion on the Piper in 1984. These included suggestions to relocate the accommodation units away from the most dangerous parts of the platform and to rebuild the units which were made from wood and fibreglass with steel and more resistant materials.
Occidental was challenged over two high-pressure gas lines running from neighbouring platforms that were a potential danger.
The Occidental safety manager accepted that the accommodation units in no way met safety standards. Yet they refused to consider the proposals from workers.
It would have meant shutting off production for six weeks costing millions of pounds in lost profits.
Moreover, the Thatcher-led Tory government did not publish the safety report. The interests of British capitalism and their disregard for workers' safety meant the oil and gas must continue to flow without disruption.
The Tory energy minister, Cecil Parkinson, claimed: "safety is the first priority for the government and the operators."
But the Department of Energy, responsible for maximising production and therefore government revenue, was in charge of safety in the oil industry.
At that time the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had no role or jurisdiction in the North Sea. The oil companies were lobbying furiously for safety to be handled by the government.
At the time of the explosion the industry was in a downturn. Companies were cutting back on costs as the price of oil fell. Old and dilapidated rigs were not being replaced.
The oil companies to this day discourage trade unions and are hostile to 'interference' with the production process.
The Cullen Inquiry set up to investigate the disaster found Occidental guilty of "inadequate maintenance and safety procedures".
But no criminal charges were ever brought against the company or anyone for the deaths of 167 workers.
The HSE did become responsible for safety checks after the disaster, but it is under-resourced. The recent gas blowout at the Elgin Platform in March 2012 and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the US all underline that safety is still a huge issue in the industry.
As Professor Woolfson, who led a study into safety after Deepwater Horizon, said like Piper Alpha there is evidence of "a lax regulatory regime, weak inspection and enforcement procedures and prioritising commercial considerations over the safety of people and the environment."
As the Militant wrote at the time: "There must be an immediate trade union safety inspection of every rig and those found wanting closed while alterations are carried out.
"Full trade union rights including the right to carry out safety inspections must be assured."
The North Sea oil and gas industry is one of the most profitable in the world.
An estimated £300 billion in corporation tax revenue (at today's prices) has flowed to the UK government since oil and gas began to be extracted from the North Sea and surrounding areas in 1975.
For the oil and gas multinationals who dominate the extraction process that figure is closer to £1 trillion.
Moreover, it is estimated that around as much again remains under the North Sea, West Shetland and the Atlantic waters.
North sea rigs, including the replacement for Piper Alpha, have been reported routinely leaking oil and other chemicals into the sea.
The entire industry should be taken into public ownership. It should be run and managed democratically by representatives of workers and the working class as a whole.
By taking these steps it would be possible to put safety and the environment first.
Under public ownership the resources from the oil and gas sector could be invested in jobs, public services, decent incomes and research into alternative energy sources, rather than lining the pockets of the big corporations.
• For more on the Socialist Party Scotland see: www.socialistpartyscotland.org.uk/
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