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Unlearned lessons of Piper Alpha leave legacy of death

LIVES are continuing to be lost around the world because the global oil industry has consistently failed to heed the tragic lessons of Piper Alpha, the worst offshore disaster in history, according to a new study.

Fresh analysis by Scottish academic Professor Charles Woolfson, a world expert on occupational safety, has compared safety failures which led to the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988, which claimed 167 lives, and failures which caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, leading to the deaths of 11 men and a huge oil slick building off the US coastline in the Gulf of Mexico.

Woolfson concluded there were "startling and wholly depressing similarities" in the basic causes underlying the two disasters, despite them occurring more than two decades apart. These include lax regulatory regimes, weak inspection and enforcement procedures, and prioritising commercial considerations over the safety of personnel and the environment.

Woolfson's report concludes by warning that "sooner or later there will be new disasters to confront".

A trial to assess the liability of rig operator BP and other firms involved for civil penalties and environmental damages over the Deepwater Horizon spill is due to get under way tomorrow in New Orleans.

If the oil giant is found "grossly negligent", it could face a fine under the US Clean Water Act of up to $17.5 billion, based on a total of 4.1 million barrels of oil spilled.

Woolfson's analysis, published in the current edition of New Solutions: A Journal Of Environmental And Occupational Health Policy, is based on official reports into the two disasters.

It concludes that both events were accelerated in the initial stages by a series of crucial human errors at critical points, and those in positions of authority were unprepared for the scale of the emergency. The report also says workers on both rigs had voiced safety concerns, but their worries were not adequately responded to by management.

It also notes that neither Occidental Petroleum, the operator of Piper Alpha, or BP were "rogue companies" operating outside industry standards at the time the disasters happened, saying: "Both companies were typical representatives of the industry of which they were a part, an industry run by giant multinational organisations aggressively pursuing the bottom line in a ruthless competitive environment."

Woolfson, professor of labour studies at Linköping University in Sweden, who was formerly based at Glasgow University where he set up the European Centre for Occupational Health, Safety and Employment, said fundamental errors appeared to have been made "over and over again".

Robert Paterson, health and safety director at offshore industry body Oil & Gas UK, said: "The European Commission has for some time now recognised that the goal-setting safety regimes around the North Sea, and in particular the UK sector, are world-leading."

A spokesman for BP declined to comment on Woolfson's report.

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