an original podcast by SafetyCulture
We all accept a level of risk - in our lives, in our jobs. A baseline of risk is inevitable. But what happens when your baseline
starts to shift? When you and everyone around you deviates from what is safe, bit by little bit?
It’s the late eighties and the oil industry is booming. Life’s good. But when you’ve become comfortable dealing with risk,
it makes for predictable accidents and it’s easy to forget that if things go wrong, they can go really wrong.
Steve Rae: We had that sense of "Okay, this is not gonna last for long." And we knew, from soon after arriving on that platform, that the only way we were gonna get off was to jump.
And then there was one explosion, it felt too close, and Vince was gone. He was like splash , he was over the side, and I'm like "Okay, he's gone. I need to be going." And that's when I jumped. Getting to the water seemed very quick. Getting to the surface of the water seemed very long, cold, out of breath-
I just felt my lungs were gonna burst, 'cause it was so far down. You go back to surface and that's fine. I remember looking back up at the platform, lying on my back and going, "Wow. Wow. I am lucky. I am lucky."
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And then thinking, "Fuck, I need to get away from here. I need to get as far away from here as I can."
Claire Stewart: It would have been about a quarter past ten at night when Steve Rae found himself floating in the freezing North Sea - boots on, fully dressed.
He was looking up at what had been until moments before - the biggest producing offshore oil and gas rig in the world.
Around him the Scottish summer twilight was obscured by heavy black smoke. Oil was burning on the water’s surface and everything glowed orange from the gas fires across the rig.
This is Baseline, a podcast from SafetyCulture. I’m Claire Stewart.
Jake Molloy: To imagine a platform disappearing was beyond our comprehension. You might think of fire you might think explosion, but a complete destruction of an installation was beyond our comprehension. It never entered your head.
Claire: Of the 228 men on board the Piper Alpha oil rig that night, only 61 survived. Most of those men lived because, like Steve and Vince, they took a chance and did what they were warned never to do. They jumped. A few threw themselves all the way off the top deck of the platform, plummeting more than 13 stories to the water below.
Many didn’t survive the jump.
For those left on the platform it took less than an hour for a series of massive explosions to rip the structure apart so badly that a huge chunk of it simply peeled off and sunk to the bottom of the sea.
That chunk included the accommodation block, where everyone who did follow safety protocol had mustered… In case of emergency they were told, the men were meant to shelter there and wait for instructions, but they never received any. Most were dead of smoke inhalation before it hit the water.
To this day, thirty years after the event, people in Aberdeen rarely speak of what happened to Piper. But it’s impact continues to reverberate - in the industry, in the community around it, and on safety standards in the UK and across the world.
Over the next four episodes of Baseline we’ll be looking at how the platform named Piper Alpha exploded, where management ignored the warning signs and why there are people in the industry counting down the days until it happens again.
Aberdeen is the kind of place that makes anyone not from Aberdeen say - ‘why are you going there?’
It’s definitely a bit different to your average coastal town.
And part of that is because of the helicopters - they’re everywhere. The airport runway is lined with hangars that belong to all different types of chopper companies.
It’s a Wednesday when I arrive, and there’s a constant flow of them like ants across the sky, apparently a shift change-over for one of the fields nearby.
Walking out of the arrivals doors at the airport, I’m struck by the scale of a billboard advertising a Norwegian company that makes safety gear for offshore work. It got to be at least 80 metres long and lit up like Christmas.
It’s in Aberdeen that I first meet Steve Rae.
We shake hands and I tell Steve his reputation precedes him. He raises an eyebrow: he’s definitely heard that before.
He ducks slightly to enter the garden room at the cafe where we’re having lunch and folds himself onto the banquette. Steve’s tall enough that workers out on the rigs regularly assume he’s an intimidating boss, something I can tell he takes pride in disproving.
He doesn’t get offshore as much as he used to, but he’s never stopped working in the industry, despite what happened on Piper.
I ask him what it feels like to be out on the rigs, not just in times of crisis but everyday, when it’s just work….
Steve: You're on an installation that is no bigger than a football field. But it’s maybe seven or eight decks high and if you think you're out there for two weeks and you could walk around it. You could walk around the perimeter in five to ten minutes.
Claire: But it’s the culture I’m interested in: did he enjoy it? does it feel like a team out there? Or is it every man - or woman - for themselves?
Steve: I went out, and I met some really good guys, and I just fitted in, and I'm really good at work experience and knowledge, so I just fitted in, and it went well. And in the space of, God, four or five years, let me think, '82 to '85, three years, three and a half years, I'd been on like 20 different installations.
And I'd seen the best, the worst, the average. I'd seen different cultures, I'd felt them. I'd see different work practises, different regimes, and I just knew. It was like so complex where you went, but there were some really good examples. And some examples you'd go, "Uggggh."
Claire: Talking to Steve about offshore life, one of the first things he mentions - one of the first things anyone mentions - is all those choppers, flying in and out of Aberdeen airport.
Steve: going out in the helicopter was never really a big deal for me. But I just knew, when it was really bad weather, that you'd get buffeted around something terrible, and you'd be like, "Jesus, I just want to get there. Am I gonna get there?" Honestly, we'd get thrown around inside our helicopter. Thankfully, you were strapped in, and you'd drop quickly ... it was like a roller coaster. And your thoughts about ... from the time you board until the time you're off is, "I just want to be there." And the fact it was a 20 minute flight was cool, if it's a three hour flight it's not a good deal.
Claire: You soon realise people who choose to work in this industry must have made themself pretty comfortable with danger, because danger is a serious issue even before you arrive on the platforms.
Steve: You can look out the front of the helicopter, cause you can see through the whole cabin, and you can see this oil rig eventually appearing on the horizon, and you'd go, "Wow, at least I can see it now." [25:12] And the closer you get, the bigger it gets, and eventually they get to a place where they just look enormous. They look absolutely gargantuan; enormous. And then, depending on which way you have to come in, depending on the wind, sometimes you have to go right around the opposite side, and you bank heavily in a helicopter.
So you're facing the water, or you're facing the sky cause it's banked so much. And you're going, "Just square up, man, just square up, and get it down.
Claire: One constant all the men talk about is the mateship of life on the rigs, like living with substitute families, fights, practical jokes and all.
Lunch rooms with table tennis and rec rooms with dominoes and darts would be transformed into makeshift cinemas at night by pinning a white sheet to a wall.
Steve: The camaraderie was fantastic, and that's what made it different. But the other thing in newer installations, and certainly Arwin was a good example. Some of the mobiles I ended up looking after as an operation's manager, had full blown cinemas, auditoriums. Graduated floors, comfy ... honestly, like a full blown cinema, on some of these bigger installations.
Claire: Which made it easy to forget that offshore platforms are hostile environments, dangerous workplaces by any measure.
The men I speak with shrug off the idea of work being risky because to them it’s just another day on the rig. That’s not to say they weren’t acutely aware that some rigs were better than others in a whole lot of ways … right down to the food.
Steve: And when I worked at Alwyn for TOTAL at that time you would still get wine with your Christmas meal, right? You would get lobster. They would have a pig's head, a hog's head, on the table at Christmas. It was a cool place. And you got paid more for working Christmas. So for single guys, it was a ooh I’m working Christmas.
But there was other places you'd get an hour off for Christmas. And you'd get fed what you'd get fed normally, with maybe a bit of stuffing. So the extremes were huge.
Claire: Steve had been working at a rig called Beatrice Alpha. But in early 1988 it stopped production so his bosses offered to move him to it’s sister installation, Piper Alpha.
Steve: I'd been on many installations but I'd never been on Piper. But I'd heard lots of things about it because there'd been explosions on it before, there'd been a fatality, lots of stuff on Piper that went on before. And I'm like, "Piper Alpha? Well, okay, well I ... it's a job."
Claire: By 1988 Piper was 12 years old.
Steve: It just looked like it’d been there forever - It was really run down. There'd been so much bits added on to, it just looked like a rabbit's warren. You couldn't get anywhere without going somewhere first. It was just like that. And I ... on reflection, looking back... I just knew it wasn't a great place. It didn't feel ... the culture was very production-oriented.
Claire: I want to know whether Steve ever thought about the fact that his job meant he was living above a mix of materials that could become, essentially, an enormous bomb.
Steve: I probably did, but it had become normalised. Everything becomes normalised in your situation. But I'll tell you the things that would really bring that home was when you could smell H2S… it had that eggy smell around the modules. You'd go [sniffs], "That's not good, that's not good."
Claire: Steve had made three trips to Piper between May and July, each time two weeks on and two weeks off.
On his third trip out, the day he arrived, it blew up.
The company managing Piper Alpha was called Occidental or Oxi, to the locals.
When the government inquiry into the disaster was handed down in 1991, one of the things the report showed was that Occidental management had made a decision to weave new gas production lines up, under and through the body of the installation.
The inquiry report is full of a brutal disbelief - how could it not be obvious to planners that if those production lines happened to ignite, the structure of the rig would be blown apart?
The report found that Occidental didn’t just assume it wouldn’t happen, they didn’t even contemplate the possibility.
Geoff Bollands: I've talked about safety at ICI as gold standard, and it definitely went down a step when I went offshore with Chevron, and it went down another step when I went offshore on the Occidental platform. There was no question or doubt about that. But I never felt that we were particularly unsafe in that respect.
Claire: That’s Geoff Bollands. He worked at British chemical manufacturer ICI, then on the North Sea rigs with Chevron, and then for nearly eight years on Piper, working for Occidental.
He has a very different memory of the place to Steve. His sense is the safety issues weren’t anything out of the ordinary.
Although he does casually mention this:
Geoff: I did get ... I'd shut the platform down once when we had a gas leak and I wasn't top of the pops with the management there, but-
Claire: What happened there? Tell me about that.
Geoff: Well, we had a gas leak then in A module, it was a big one.
Claire: What year was that?
Geoff: It was maybe just a year or two before. I'd gone down and we couldn't get to where it was or identify where it was, so I just radioed my colleague in the control room and said, "I think we'd better shut down." He questioned me and he said, "Are you telling me to shut down?" I said yeah, and he did, the control room. I got asked about it, but I was told afterwards that that was the end of me, I'd never get promoted.
Claire: The closest Geoff gets to risk these days is fluctuations in the financial markets.
He left the oil industry after Piper to start his own financial advisory firm in Teeside, a region made famous for its steel.
I’ve seen a fantastic photo of Geoff standing in the control room on Piper, as a young man sporting a Tom Selleck moustache and clad in a pair of deep red overalls.
There’s a pencil behind his ear and a clipboard in his hand, and panels of buttons on every wall.
Geoff: My understanding of risk was we worked in a ... with a risk type job because of what we were handling.
You go out there and you've accepted that you've gone out there, or else you wouldn't have gone in the first place. Once you made the decision to go and once you got on the platform you got on with it really, there wasn't much use to thinking about, that it wasn't safe, because you were there 24 hours. When I first went out there you were there for 14 days, so you couldn't think "Oh, I'm not very safe here." You went to bed and if the thing shook and nearly shook you out you thought dear me and you turned over and went to sleep.
Claire: Geoff had nearly finished his two-week rotation as nightshift control operator, when Piper exploded. He had been due to fly home to Teeside the following morning.
He’d been in the same control room I’ve seen in the photo, chatting to friends about plans for their week onshore.
It was by all accounts, just an ordinary day.
Geoff: looking back now it's unbelievable that we accepted… that we went out there and our hotel facilities for want of a better word, were next to the plant … Thankfully the designs on them are different now, but yeah, you didn't give it any thought really. That's how they were and that's what you accepted.
Claire: Trauma psychologist Professor David Alexander is something of an icon for those involved in the Piper disaster because of the support he provided survivors … we’ll be hearing more from him later.
But for now, I’m interested in why he thinks we as humans can so easily and willingly
compartmentalise risk. Get used to living on top of something so combustible, like Steve and Geoff.
He explains it by saying it’s essentially “biologically adaptive”.
David: If you actually had this pervasive, never receding doubt that the dinosaur might be lurking outside your cave, you wouldn’t go out and the woman's tea. I mean you have to try and strike a balance. I mean when you get on an aircraft you don't really think it's going to crash or you wouldn't get on, if you think you're going to be raped coming down here late at night, you would come down. So there is denial to a degree is healthy. But other people just live too much in denial.
It will never happen to me. Well, it does happen to people. Like ladies, I will say if you think you're being followed 65 percent of the time, you probably are so act on your guts, don't say, oh, nothing's gonna happen to me. I can kick people in the shins, nah, no you won't actually it won’t happen.
Claire: Steve talks a lot now about his gut instinct when he was on Piper the first couple of times. He feels guilt about not raising the niggling concerns he had.
But the reality was for the men who worked out there in the years and months, even the weeks before Piper exploded, they had adapted to routines and processes and a way of life where little things here and there weren’t a problem.
Their baselines had shifted to match the necessities of life on a production installation and when they deviated from that baseline - a shortcut made here, paperwork misplaced there - they had normalised that new way of doing things. It hadn’t resulted in catastrophe, so it felt safe.
But being an offshore wife was different. It meant you were always aware of the danger that came with life on the rigs.
I meet Gina Sims at her semi detached near Falkirk about 25 minutes out of Edinburgh. She has the quiet determined efficiency of someone practiced at getting things sorted.
Gina Sims: I was used to the offshore kind of thing because my brother had worked offshore beforehand, he was a welder. And he used to build the big monstrosities on land at Kishorn and various places. And then he would float out with them, and then he would do the top side. Welding and that that needed done.
Claire: She knew about how the police turn up at your door, about the helicopter crashes, about not being able to contact loved ones out on the rigs when you needed to.
She knew the risks but it wasn’t enough to put her off marrying into the offshore life, once Peter appeared on the scene.
Gina: Where did I meet him? I met him in a hotel that I was working in in Falkirk, the next town along, because I'm mad falling out with the boyfriend and my uncle thought it'd be "ah, go work in the pub, you'll meet plenty of folk in the pub." So I was working through the day, and then a Wednesday night, and Friday, Saturday, Sunday I worked in the pub. And he came in with his mates. But we didn't sort of go out right away. It was a hen night that I was at, and we went at the local dancing. The Manikee. And he jumped out of this cupboard and said "Hello, Moonbeam, would you like to dance?" And that was it. That was it.
Claire: Sitting in Gina’s lounge room, you can tell pretty quickly she’s experienced layers of stress and trauma as a result of her brother’s accident, and the uncertainty of having a husband work for forty-odd years offshore.
Gina: My brother, he stopped working offshore because he was in a bad accident and then the Norwegian sector he was welding with another chap - and it's like a cage they're in, that's lowered down, and the hoist broke. The cage fell into the sea. Luckily the door opened. John got out - he's quite a strong swimmer - but his mate didn't, so he went back down and he wrestled until he got him out. And he was actually fine for about six months or so after it, and then all of a sudden, he went to bits.
Claire: It’s a Saturday and her daughter has dropped the grandson off while she gets ready to head out to a friend’s wedding.
There’s been a hair and makeup disaster requiring some last minute repair work -- racing against the clock -- and everyone’s in a bit of a flap.
Gina’s co-ordinating things, keeping people calm while simultaneously welcoming strangers with recording equipment into her living room, making tea, watching out for her grandson and fielding calls from a friend’s husband in the offshore industry about something to do with his insurance.
I’m not at all surprised she founded what became known as OWLS, the Offshore Women’s Link Support after a string of disasters that happened at the end of the eighties.
Gina: Now we didn't know what we were going to call it. And it was actually a few months later, I was reading the Osborne First Book of Nature to my daughter. And I'd come to the page with owls. And it said "Owls contact each other in the dark by calling." Now we’d just set up a 24 hour helpline. So that was how OWLS began.
Claire: OWLS was a huge part of Gina’s life for seventeen years so even her just starting to tell me about it, some of the families it helped, some of the people she met - it’s a tough conversation for her, and for me. It still feels very raw.
Gina: It's good to know that they do all the training, the guys do all the emergency response training for vacating the platform. They do all the helicopter training to get out of a helicopter. But if something's as big as Piper, you just don't know. And for all of us that have lived, I can speak to younger women, who weren't even born at that time, that are now offshore wives, or women that work offshore. And because we haven't had a big disaster like that ... touch wood … they don't understand, they just don't understand the complexities and the horror that it brings. And sometimes, I think, maybe that ignorance is bliss, for some of them.
But for those of us, of my age, who were around then, I prayed from the minute he left the house that he would get to Aberdeen safely on the train, and then I'd pray the next day that he would get on the helicopter out to the platform.
Claire: As an outsider, I find it difficult to reconcile all the disparate parts of this puzzle: everyone knew how dangerous the offshore industry was. Families lived with the constant low level fear of a knock on the door from police.
Even the men who worked on the rigs knew theoretically that they were at risk every day they were out there.
But in the 80’s, the North Sea industry was bursting its seams. It was booming, and it hadn’t boomed like this ever before.
Steve: So if I think about when I first really appreciated something was happening with oil, I would have been about 10 I think, and there were some new kids arriving in our school.
Claire: Steve remembers the families pouring in to new estates as they were being built, and making friends with a guy called Paul, whose dad was in the steel business.
Steve: And they were doing steel fixing to build rigs, concrete rigs, up in bits of the country. But they were also building constructions for Peterhead Power Station, which was gonna be fueled by gas and oil from the North Sea. And they were building a office complexes in town for the oil headquarters. So that's when I really was like, "Man, there's something big going on here."
Claire: The boom made it easy - and profitable - to get really comfortable with risk. On the day Piper exploded its logs show an export of more than 138,000 barrels of oil, worth nearly two million US dollars - and that’s in 1988 money.
Geoff: Working at Occi used to say, "safety was first, and production second, and training’s third," and we used to say, "safety's first, production's second, and training's third, as long as number one doesn't interfere with number two," I think we used to actually say that.
Claire: So the black gold was flowing, the pubs were full and Aberdeen was humming as the North Sea poured the money in.
As humans, we remain eternally optimistic that bad things will never happen to us, in spite of the evidence. Like David Alexander says - that how we’ve adapted, biologically.
People who assume the worst are poo-pooed for putting a dampener on things. The problem is, this eternal optimism might help us cope with normalising risk, but in also makes us complacent about danger.
And maybe that’s what was happening the lead up to the Piper disaster.
The Baseline offshore - what was considered OK, every day practice - inched further and further away from safe.
Management was comfortable its risk assessments were sufficient. Routine processes and procedures on the rig were overlooked, or shortcuts taken; hundreds of temporary contractors were in and out as the rig underwent its huge maintenance program; assumptions about safety processes were made based on how things had been or were on other rigs, rather than what was categorically zero risk; workarounds led to mistakes … and then the accident happened.
With hindsight, no-one should have been surprised...
Geoff: I think there's a generation out there working offshore who weren't born when it happened, and we all thought it would never happen and it could never happen. We knew we could have an incident, we could have a fire, we'd be able to deal with it. Someone could have a minor injury, a fall, but we never dreamt for one second that we could lose the platform in effect in 20 minutes, from the first explosion to the one where there was the point of no return. That was only 20 minutes: ten o'clock 'til 20 past ten, and if you'd asked any of us about that we'd have said "Hah, that can't happen," and it happened then.
Safety is better today, but if all the things line up that you get wrong in a row it could happen again. I hope it never will.
Claire: You’ve been listening to Baseline, from SafetyCulture, the makers of iAuditor.
For more information on how SafetyCulture can help businesses identify what’s working and what’s not in their own operations, visit www.safetyculture.com
In episode two:
Geoff: One minute I'm seeing all the gas alarms come in, trying to stop them, and then next thing I knew there was the explosion.
Claire: What happened that night, to turn a few small errors into the worst disaster the oil and gas industry has ever seen?
Steve: Those guys had changed out so many valves in the last six weeks, without anything happening.
Claire: And the man whose job it was to sift through all that evidence and find out what went wrong.
Lord Cullen: I thought it was a tremendous challenge to try to create something good out of something awful.
02: Four Minutes Past Ten
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