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Will we ever learn?

22 September 2008

Experiences from the field suggest that the lessons learned from major disasters in the hazardous area are not properly communicated to new generations of engineers working in this sector. Operators of hazardous areas can choose their own solutions to achieve safe operations but industry certainly does not need new disasters to remind operators of the lessons learned from previous tragedies.

Magne Ognedal says: Remember the lessons
Magne Ognedal says: Remember the lessons

This view is shared by Magne Ognedal, the director general of Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority, who is concerned at the number of workers in industry today who are not familiar with the major disasters in the 1980s. Speaking at an HSE lunch being held during the recent ONS conference, the director general reflected on the Alexander Kielland disaster in 1980, which claimed 123 lives in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea.

An entire nation was in shock and showed great concern on how the accident could have happened. A few years later, in 1988, the Piper Alpha platform went up in flames in the British sector, claiming 167 lives. These disasters have radically changed our understanding of the risks associated with oil and gas production.

But of most concern these days is the apathy being shown about general safety and how the oil industry has forgotten these lessons in particular. Despite thorough inquiries following serious incidents, the new generation of hazardous area workers does not know what caused the disasters. Neither is there a clear understanding of what these tragedies mean for our comprehension of risks and major accidents. We must recognise the importance of transferring the lessons learned to the oil workers of today and tomorrow.

The accident at BP’s Texas City refinery, which claimed 15 lives, showed us that making sufficient room for safety in the organisation and daily operations is a management responsibility. The accident demonstrated that management priorities have perhaps the greatest influence on handling the risk of major accidents. Safety authorities investigating the Texas incident have encouraged a mindset, which focuses on caring about people, the environment and material assets.

It is the role of the supervisory authority to interpret and enforce regulatory requirements. And in part, these regulations are based on the knowledge acquired from previous incidents. Companies can choose individual and relevant solutions to reach their goals for safe operations but industry certainly does not need new disasters to remind us of the lessons learned from past.

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Reader response


Your article about learning from disasters is very true.

I have been involved for many years in the assessment and classification of hazardous areas in the petroleum industry, mainly in the refining sector. My concern is that industry in general does not allocate sufficient resources or focus in respect to the training of staff in the dangers associated with working within hazardous areas.

I am particularly concerned about the degree of routine and refresher training provided for both electrical and non electrical staff and contractors who work in hazardous areas on a daily basis.

Another example in the petroleum marketing sector is major oil companies in South Africa do not appear to provide sufficient training for service station supervisors and forecourt attendants in the hazards associated with working within hazardous areas.

From my own experience both in the refining and marketing sector, the average person working within a hazardous area has little knowledge about the subject, and in consequence may be subject to unnecessary risk.

Keep up the good work in publicising industries safety shortfalls.

Ray Davies (Pr Eng C Eng)
Electrical Design Engineer
Cape Town Refinery
South Africa

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