It’s over twenty years since Piper Alpha blew up and scores of men were killed in the UK’s worst offshore disaster. For me, the scale and brutality of it still sits vividly in my mind, I hope that time has done much to heal the physical and emotional scars of the injured and of the families of the bereaved.
In some ways, the disaster mirrors much of what is going on in British business at the moment. Little attention had been given to ongoing maintenance. Automatic safety systems had been turned off, emergency processes were on manual, depending heavily on staff being able to turn them on if called upon. There had been a series of warning signs of serious problems, senior management had not reacted to these. They had also ignored the bigger picture, their focus had been on keeping production flowing at least possible cost. They had failed to reconfigure the operation for what it was now doing, they had simply got on with the day to day job, trying to maximise short term profits. A series of failures by the very people whose role it was to make key decisions had set up a train of events which later saw things deteriorate very quickly indeed, to such an extent that all control was lost.
On the evening of the disaster, by the time the systems in the control room showed there was a major problem needing immediate attention, it was too late – the first explosion erupted before any last gasp action could be done to prevent it. That explosion ripped through the control room, removing any ‘late in the day’ ability to take any control of the situation, fate was now in control. Several other explosions erupted quickly afterwards, each more brutal than the last and tearing down the fabric of the platform, ultimately removing any chance of survival for those left. It’s hard to imagine the horror of the situation.
Most of those who survived, and there were not many, got off the platform very early indeed, after the first or second explosion. Their decision to go was very difficult indeed – a good many chose to jump well over 100 foot into a burning sea of twisted metal. They had no safe options, they chose to take a calculated risk. Not all those who took this gamble survived. Those who had this option were the luck ones, 90% of those who did not have this option did not survive.
And that is where many businesses and their owners are at this moment. Many businesses are simply not structured to best cope with the downturn (nor indeed the upturn when it comes). Their prime focus remains on short term cost minimisation rather than ‘net financial benefit’. They are creating long term weaknesses which at some stage will cause things to quickly get out of control, sending the business into a steep and inescapable downward spiral. It may not happen tomorrow, but for many that day will come. The making of pre-emptive, or even early reactive, decisions and the taking of action to resolve weaknesses will improve the chances of the business thriving or surviving, but even these may not succeed. Management are simply carrying on, hoping that disaster does not strike, not seeing the warning signs for what they are and not seeking help from their safety advisors (their accountants or lawyers) because they want to avoid a bill today. Their failure to look at the overall picture and take control of the situation means they are trusting to luck, and no one’s luck holds out forever.
It takes a special sort of courage to manage a successful business nowadays – and you can, if you are in the right place at the right time, make your own luck. Timing, position and courage are key.