Late in the evening of 6 July 1988 in a desolate part of the North Sea, around 120 miles north-east of the Scottish city of Aberdeen, a huge explosion brought a vivid and unrelenting light to the night sky. The huge explosion on the Piper Alpha oil platform would claim the lives of 167. Thirty bodies were never recovered. The total insured loss was approximately £1.7bn, making it one of the costliest man-made disasters ever, and halting the production of ten percent of the North Sea oil and gas production.
High pressure condensate pumps are an essential part of the gas processing system on offshore oil and gas platforms. Piper Alpha had two of these pumps, which were identified simply as A and B. One would always be in operation whilst the sister pump remained on standby. On the morning of the tragedy a pressure safety valve was removed from pump A for routine calibration, raising a standard administrative notice known as a ‘permit to work’ that was left in the Control Room. Finally, two blind safety flanges were attached to pump A.
The permit to work notice detailed the identity, location and isolations that had been put in place. Later, due to condensation, pump B tripped and could not be restarted. An engineer checked the ‘permit to work’ box in the Safety Room as was standard practice, but couldn’t find any relevant paperwork. He activated pump A which created a pressure build up leading to the catastrophic explosion.
A simple, wholly avoidable lack of administrative routine had led to this tragic event. And that is the nature of chaos. The fault lines are always small, insignificant and the easy prey of optimism bias.
Optimism bias – it will never happen to me
Optimism bias, as explained by Dr Richard Osbaldiston, Department of Psychology, Eastern Kentucky University, captures this initial and flawed human characteristic by posing the question: “Do you think you are a better than average driver?” He concludes, rather unsurprisingly, that you would probably say yes. And his research shows that around 90% of other drivers would say the same. I must live in the very neighbourhood where the remaining 10% reside as I have witnessed the idiots first-hand and had to identify them with a one fingered salute.
This prejudice towards positivity creates a false belief that we are more likely to experience good outcomes and less likely to suffer bad consequences. This leads us to the Shangri-la of self-importance, where disregarding the reality of the situation is normalised because, quite frankly, bad shit never happens to us.
The good Doctor soberly addresses an issue that I have always mused about. Warning labels rarely work! Dire notices scream from packets of cigarettes, yet some people still happily draw the poisonous fumes deep into their fragile lungs. Speed limits adorn our roads, yet excess speed is responsible for the vast majority of fatalities. So how can we better mitigate this rose-tinted view of our own lives?
How not to manage the chaos
Minding my own business should, on the face of it, be a pretty good way of avoiding the chaos of others. If only life was as simple as that. Suffice to say that recently this posture did not prevent me from being immediately sucked into a vortex of havoc, even though it wasn’t of my making. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. As I desperately reached out to hold onto something stable, my disorientation urged me to look for a culprit to blame. Someone to conveniently take the bullet for this blizzard of bewilderment.
Looking back over my life experiences I concluded that until I had become a post-graduate researcher in criminology my previous attitude towards critical catastrophes was very much a case of ‘it won’t happen to me’. After all, crises only ever happen to others. Until that is, it happened to me.
But as the dust finally settled, I saw a twinkling light on the horizon. The circumstances around the event aren’t important since shitstorms aren’t rare. Third-party ones are a great spectator sport but when you become splattered it isn’t that entertaining. This got me thinking about the evidential trail of the typical ‘crap hitting the fan’ scenario. Were there any red flags that if heeded would have prevented the ultimate chaos, and at what point would the tsunami of turmoil be triggered?
The decision-making process
Intriguing research undertaken by Iowa State University on the decision-making processes of firefighters concluded that experience was the key factor in making decisions under stress.
Nir Keren, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, explained:
“One of the most interesting things we found was that firefighters with a high level of experience, who we expected to be faster decision makers and have a lower stress level, did not. In fact, the opposite occurred. The experienced firefighters took significantly longer to make decisions, and their stress levels were at least as high as novice firefighters, if not higher.”
Experience allows us to assess the situation and analyse the risks. This takes longer than those with less experience who may jump at quick solutions without considering the consequences. Therefore, it may be easier to firefight before the fire.
Or to put it another way, think about the important seemingly stable stuff around you and regularly fret on the question, “What would I do if this collapsed? What chaos would occur?” This would better equip you to keep your eye on the ball and thwart the comforting, but defective, optimism bias.
Learning from the mistakes of others
Adults have a preferred way of learning. Some like to get actively involved, some like to watch others, and others require a clear rationale as to why they should even undergo new learning.
Then there are the theorists. The ones that prefer to learn from the mistakes of others. Behavioural training, for example in communication, diversity and inclusion and mediation skills will often make use of models – technical templates, Venn diagrams and flow charts. These have been created on the back of other people’s foul ups and reduced to a theoretical model.
You can do the same. Get stressed and simulate your own clusterf@%k and identify the points of vulnerability and look at simple mitigation. After all, that’s why it’s called stress-testing.
And closer to home
Chaos is not just the preserve of big corporates. It doesn’t care what or who it affects. Relationships are easy pickings too.
When asked about the longevity of his marriage to wife Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks highlighted a simple but profound observation: “We’re happy to stay home on a date night because we go out so much. It’s just really, really nice to stay home and watch a great movie.”
Perhaps Tom has nailed the antidote to the chaos theory. Continue to do the simple things, on a regular basis, that first led to success. Taking your eye off the ball, or more accurately succumbing to optimism bias, is an easy trap to fall into but the absence of little things, the simple checks and balances have a habit of failing just when you thought things were getting so easy.
Must dash – I have some flowers to buy.