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Lessons from a tragedy

Last week I spoke at an extraordinary event in Aberdeen – Piper 25. This three-day conference was put on to "reflect, review, reinforce and re-energise" 25 years after the Piper Alpha offshore tragedy claimed 167 lives.

I attend and speak at a lot of conferences, and some of them can blur together. But this one will stay with me for a very long time.

Lord Cullen spoke about his inquiry into the disaster and the seminal changes that were made to the offshore regulatory regime as a result. Sir Charles Haddon-Cave shared the lessons from his investigation of the Nimrod air disaster.

It was attended by more than 750 delegates from all over the world. On the second day, they were joined by 500 workforce representatives who took part in a parallel conference in the same venue. But it wasn’t the number of people which made this event remarkable.

What really struck me was the profound sense among all the participants that we must never ever lose sight of the challenges which continue to be involved in working offshore. There was no sense of this being an industry where health and safety has been cracked. In their different ways, everyone spoke about the need to maintain the sense of chronic unease which goes with operating in such a challenging environment – and everyone meant it.

Every single one of us derives huge benefit from the oil and gas that continues to be extracted in the North Sea. It comes from ever deeper waters and is extracted using ever more complex new technologies – but we take it for granted.

Since I became Chair of HSE I have been to Aberdeen two or three times a year. Whenever I do, I notice the "oilmen" on the plane and in the airport – not the suited executives, but the ordinary people in jeans and t-shirts with the logoed holdalls on their way to or from their three week turn on the rigs.

They are easily recognisable – and we owe them a great deal for what they do. Next time you turn on the gas to start cooking or fill the tank on your car, just stop and think about what it takes to get that fuel to you. Think about the challenges involved and the improvements that have had to be made to ensure that that can happen safely day after day.

It’s 25 years since that terrible incident on Piper Alpha but the basic hazards those guys face today are still the same. On that summer night in 1988, 167 of their colleagues lost their lives. I would urge everyone to watch this powerful film, not just those who work in the oil and gas industry. There are lessons for all of us to remember. None of us must ever forget.