Piper Alpha is always there, always at the back of your mind. It led to the creation of offshore regulation and standards that have been accepted around the world.
“The challenges that face us today are different – how to deliver improvements through innovation and the continuing quest to strike the right balance between cost and safety against a background of ageing assets and falling oil prices.”
These are the words of Kees van Wingerden, Senior Vice President of Gexcon, which specialises in safety and risk management and advanced dispersion, explosion and fire modelling.
Gexcon’s detailed knowledge of explosion phenomena has been built up throughout years of extensive research projects, carrying out safety assessments, performing accident investigations and performing physical testing at the company’s own dedicated facilities on the Norwegian island of Sotra outside Bergen.
Take a look at the company’s history timeline and the high profile accident on Piper Alpha is cited. The development of Gexcon’s industry standard modelling software, FLACS, is closely linked to what happened at Piper Alpha.
“Piper Alpha was very important for the development of our software and since then we have worked with the oil and gas industry as well as safety engineers at major hazards facilities to help them manage the risk of fire and gas explosions from flammable substances, “ explained Kees, who has worked in the field for more than 30 years.
“Now, we find ourselves in a position where people are asking, is all this continued detailed analysis of risk really giving us a safer installation or not?
“What is the true spend on calculating risk?”
Kees is among a team of leading global explosion experts who has been invited to be part of a joint industry task force to assess safety and cost effectiveness.
It will investigate whether the studies undertaken so far provide enough information to create a range of typical scenarios that will help reduce costs in design and risk analysis.
He explained: “In the last 30 years, so many different types of studies have been undertaken and we now have to ask ourselves, can we adopt standards on typical facilities and situations which can be built into regulations and guidance to create more efficient risk analysis?
“By adopting this kind of approach, we could support market conditions and also focus resource in other areas, such as studies around probabilities and use of innovation to tackle some of the issues around ageing assets.”
Professor Geoffrey Chamberlain, a member of the UK Explosion Liaison Group (UKELG), was among the experts invited to participate in Part II of the Public Inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster, which considered measures to prevent future major accidents.
In the summer of 1988 he was working at Shell Research Ltd in Chester and had started to build up his knowledge on explosions and how to mitigate the impact on offshore platforms.
He explained: “I remember getting a call from Aberdeen to say that there had been an incident on Brent Alpha and that I needed to investigate it – the next day, the news of Piper Alpha started breaking and at first I thought they were talking about Brent.
“I recall getting the plane at Manchester and it was full of journalists.
“When I got to Brent, they didn’t know a great deal about Piper, they had picked up some sketchy information about what had happened but of course there was no internet back then.
“The incident on Brent was quite serious; the explosion had blown off the cladding and the blast doors but the rest of the platform was still intact because the explosion had vented towards the sea. It was a very different situation at Piper Alpha.”
Geoff took his findings from Brent Alpha back to Chester – photographs, debris, equipment to analyse.
“We started to piece together the sequence of events and soon discovered something quite interesting – how the gas and oil mist created a flammable cloud which triggered the smoke alarms and automatically triggered the deluge system. This then impacted on the lighting fixtures, eventually finding an ignition source, he explained.
At the end of the 1988, Shell asked Geoff to lead an Explosion Taskforce in Aberdeen over the next two years.
“At the time there was very little knowledge that we could draw upon about the nature of explosions. We’d done a few large-scale tests but did not have any models from which to work. We were trying to interpret our experimental results in terms of what might happen in a real situation.
“We were applying basic science to engineering – it had to be carefully thought through to create a useful computer tool to predict the effects of explosion impact.
“We also looked at design layouts, gas explosions in confined and unconfined areas and mitigating factors such as venting.
“At the same time we started to develop Shell’s consequence modelling software, FRED (Fire Release Explosion Dispersion) to create a future implementation and screening tool.
“Piper Alpha and the Public Inquiry that followed was a turning point. It launched a whole series of initiatives to improve the safety of offshore operations.
“People started to report leaks, explosion assessments were carried out and experiments were performed to get more insight into explosions.
“Lord Cullen’s Public Inquiry addressed all the main factors and we now have the tools to create designs that mitigate against the core risks but there are still areas of vulnerability and weakness especially around human behaviour.”
Geoff added: “What happened at Piper Alpha and during that period shaped my life. I knew how to dedicate the rest of my career.”
Geoff has investigated 23 accidents and played an integral part in the development of Shell’s consequence modelling tool, FRED which is now available to the market place exclusively through Gexcon.
FRED alongside Shepherd (Quantitative Risk Assessment) and PIPA (Pre-incident Planning) are risk and consequence software tools which deliver accurate and proven insights that have been tried and tested through real world implementation.
Previously only for use on Shell projects, FRED, Shepherd and PIPA are now available to the global community with full training and support from Gexcon.
For more information, go to www.gexcon.com