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After Grenfell Tower, what can we learn from the Piper Alpha disaster?

The Piper Alpha memorial in Aberdeen

The Piper Alpha memorial in Aberdeen

Back in July 1988, the North Sea oil rig Piper Alpha was ripped apart by multiple explosions, costing 167 people their lives. Afterwards, you’d think that it was new legislation that prevented more such tragedies. But that was only partly the case.

A couple of Scottish petroleum engineers decided to take matters into their own hands. And the technology that resulted has since ensured that thousands upon thousands of oil workers can be confident they’ll get back to their families at the end of their rotations.

So what can the authorities who manage tower blocks learn from it?

One:

With the right tech in place, it’s possible to know with certainty what the past and current safety status is (and with the latest generation of connected devices, it gets easier – and cheaper – all the time). In contrast, right now there are scores of unknowns about the Grenfell Tower disaster and it could take months to unravel, all at public expense.

Two, and most important:

The basic concept behind those Scottish engineers’ thinking was that if something can go wrong, it probably will. And any single compromise puts more stress on every other link in the safety chain. And when enough links are compromised even slightly, disaster becomes a certainty.

Kensington’s tower inferno probably wasn’t the result of B-grade cladding alone, but of a number of knock-on factors: a fire escape that wasn’t, lack of fire drills or sprinklers or even smoke detectors, gaps in the containment shields, a supply chain that diluted individual or even corporate responsibility, and over-rigid ‘stay in your rooms’ guidance. But most fatal of all was every individual’s belief that their own compromise wouldn’t be the fatal one.

The Piper Alpha tragedy at least had the result that it was the last of its kind. Tower block residents shouldn’t have to wait for officialdom to grind its way to a conclusion or new legislation – sensor-based technology can make their lives safer now.