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Piper Alpha 25 years on: fire killed 167 workers because bosses cut corners

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On the anniversary of the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster, Socialist Worker looks at the union-busting and callous lack of safety that condemned oil workers to death
Issue 2360
A memorial to the workers in Aberdeen

A memorial to the workers in Aberdeen (Pic: Notnixon on Flickr)

It’s 25 years since the Piper Alpha oil platform was engulfed in flames, claiming the lives of 167 people.

It was a disaster that never should have happened—but bosses’ disregard for safety doomed three quarters of the rig’s workers to death.

Four massive explosions destroyed the platform, which lay 110 miles north-east of Aberdeen, on the night of 6 July 1988.

Of the 167 men killed, 165 were on the platform and two on a rescue vessel.

The first explosion took place at around 10pm, when a cloud of gas, leaking from a pump that was missing a safety valve, ignited. 

There were three further huge explosions at 10.20pm, 10.50pm and 11.20pm. These were caused by ruptures of the pipelines connecting Piper Alpha to other platforms. 

The fire reached over 700C—hot enough to melt hard hats on to the heads of the men wearing them.

Most of those who died on Piper Alpha did so in the galley, waiting for helicopters that were prevented from landing by flames and thick smoke. The walls were fire proof but not smoke proof or blast proof.

After 15 minutes, the emergency lighting went off and the room was dark except for the glow from fires licking the windows.


The design of the platform had made no allowances for the destruction of the control room. 

As a result no call for evacuation was made.

When the smoke began to penetrate the accommodation block two men donned protective gear and attempted to reach the fire-fighting systems below deck.

They were never seen again.

Some workers did make it outside. One survivor Roy recalled “I didn’t know what was below me. I just knew I had to get out of the flames.

“Most of the lads I was standing with never made it.”

The fire itself would have burnt out had it not been fed by the nearby Tartan and Claymore platforms hurtling gas and oil into the heart of the fire. The Claymore platform was only shut down after the second explosion. The Tartan platform was not shut down due to the cost.

The fire took three weeks to put out. 

An inquiry into the disaster was critical of Piper Alpha’s operator, Occidental, which was found guilty of having inadequate maintenance and safety procedures.

No criminal charges were ever brought against it.

The next time the press or a politician complain about “elf and safety gone mad” remember Piper Alpha.

NRB: blacklisted for raising safety concerns

Workers are blacklisted using “NRB” (not required back) on North Sea platforms.

Unions say someone can receive an NRB for complaining about safety, being suspected of a tip-off to the Health and Safety Executive or being too trade union orientated.

Workers labelled as NRB are unlikely to be hired by any firm.

The North Sea is still being drilled…

 Deep water drilling is ongoing in the North Sea—despite a poor safety record.

BP leads the drive to exploit the remaining oil. Its Deepwater Horizon oil rig spilled a million gallons a day in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. 

The industry body Oil & Gas UK said plans had been rehearsed to prevent oil coming to shore in the event of a spill and that the rough conditions would help dispel pollution.

…and rigs are still catching fire

 Safety inspectors were called out to Apache’s Beryl Bravo platform after a fire last month. More than 150 workers were on board at the time of the fire.

It saw a sudden intense burst of flames, leading to shutdown and emergency response procedures.

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