Piper Alpha at 30—Still Highly Significant

The major accident of 6 July 1988, when Britain’s Piper Alpha facility caught fire and exploded, remains one of the worst imaginable scenarios for everyone working in and with the petroleum industry. Its lessons are still relevant.


This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, when 167 people lost their lives. Petroleum Safety Authority Director General Anne Myhrvold believes it remains relevant.

The disaster began to unfold after gas started to leak from a condensate pump. This was shut down for maintenance when an operating problem meant the other pump in the system had to stop. A failure of communication meant that the control room operator started up the unit being maintained without realizing that the work was unfinished. The substantial leak of condensate and gas that resulted caught fire and exploded before anyone managed to intervene.

Two hours after the first explosion, Piper Alpha disintegrated. The bulk of the facility, including the living quarters, sank beneath the waves. One hundred and sixty-five of the 226 people on board when the accident happened died. Another two people were also killed on a support vessel that took part in the rescue operation.

“Although the disaster didn’t happen on the NCS [Norwegian continental shelf], it’s important for everyone working in this industry regardless of country,” Myhrvold said.

“The accident served as a reminder that we must work constantly to prevent serious incidents, reduce risk, and improve safety.”

Piper Alpha
The Piper field on the UK continental shelf was discovered in 1973 and came on stream 3 years later with Occidental Petroleum as its operator. It had been developed with one large production facility on a steel jacket.

This platform was one of the biggest on the UK continental shelf and at peak produced more than 300,000 BOPD—or 10% of total British crude output.

No other accident in the offshore petroleum industry so far has cost so many human lives as the blaze that began on Piper Alpha in the late evening of 6 July 1988.

A total of 167 people lost their lives in this major accident.

“The industry fortunately doesn’t have many major accidents to look back on,” Myhrvold said. “That makes it all the more important to commemorate Piper Alpha.”

She says this disaster should be remembered both as the human tragedy it was and an example of what a major accident means for the industry and the rest of society.

“We generally take it for granted that everyone comes home from work as healthy and whole as when they left. That’s how it must be. It’s nevertheless important to be reminded that the worst imaginable can actually happen.”

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