Friday, July 05, 2013

"Jurong Oil Rig" and Spyros

89 workers were injured on Dec 3rd, 2012 when an oil rig at Jurong Shipyard listed to one side. The injured victims were mainly from India and Bangladesh. Men were seen throwing themselves into the sea from three storeys up after a malfunction on the three-legged jackup rig caused the platform to list by more than 10 degrees. Despite the massive structure failure, fortunately there were no fatalities. Jurong Shipyard also managed to activate the emergency response plan swiftly and all the workers were accounted for within an hour.

(Jurong Oil Rig listed on Dec 3, 2012. It was upright on Jan 15, 2013, about one and a half month after the incident. The Straits Times, Jan 16, 2013)

The brakes on one of these three legs appeared to have given way. It caused that side of the platform to slide downwards despite that just two days earlier, the braking system had been subjected to a load test by applying 9,000 tonnes of weight on each leg. Altogether, the three legs are designed to bear about 40,000 tonnes.

The oil rig accident was triggered by a failed braking system. Fail-safe mechanisms would usually kick in to lock the jacking system. For this particular case, the safety or back-up systems may be failed or were disabled by someone. This could possibly happen if workers were doing repair work on these back-up systems. “Jurong oil rig” was described as one of Singapore's worst industrial accidents in recent times.

The jackup rig involved in the accident is the Friede & Goldman (F&G) JU-3000N. Co-designed by Jurong Shipyard and naval architecture firm F&G. When completed, the rig could operate in waters up to 120m deep and could drill to depths of over 9,000m. It typically took three years to build and cost about US$220 million (S$268million).

I used to share the Piper Alpha story when conducting naval platform engineering seminars at one stage of my career. The major oil rig accident in the world in terms of life lost and industry impact is the offshore oil production platform Piper Alpha, which was located in the British sector of the North Sea oil field and operated by Occidental Petroleum. At its peak, Piper Alpha produced 300,000 barrels (48,000 cu.m) of oil a day, or a turnover of about $30 million (US) a day by today’s standard. On July 6, 1988, Piper Alpha engulfed in a catastrophic fire and caused the death of 165 men (out of 226) on board the platform itself and 2 men on board a rescue vessel. Piper Alpha was eventually lost in a sequence of structural failures. Over and above the tragic loss of life, the financial damage was in excess of $3 billion (US).

(Piper Alpha. Photo source: www.arres.co.uk)

The investigation results revealed that the massive fire was not the result of an unpredictable “act of God” but of an accumulation of errors and bad decisions. Most of them were rooted in the organization, its structure, procedures, and culture. Risk assessment (severity versus frequency) and ALARP ((minimise risk to) as low as reasonably practicable) were subsequently introduced as part of the safety standards. The enquiry made 106 recommendations for changes to North Sea safety procedures, all of which were accepted by industry.

The “Jurong oil rig” was reminiscent of another major industrial accident that happened 34 years ago - The Spyros disaster. At about 2pm of 12 October 1978, Liberian-registered Greek oil tanker Spyros exploded at Jurong shipyard, killing 76 people and injuring hundreds. It remains as Singapore's worst accident in Singapore post-war history, in terms of lives lost. It is also Singapore's worst industrial accident.

(Greek oil tanker Spyros exploded at Jurong shipyard. NAS 1978)

Spyros explosion occurred as about 150 workers, including women, returned to the engine and boiler rooms of the ship after their lunch break. The blast flung debris from the 35,600-tonne ship as far as 100 metres away and started a flash fire that prevented dockside workers from rescuing those trapped inside the ship. Due to the after-lunch timing, the number of casualties increased dramatically, as many workers were returning to the repair works. Many were burnt to death. Others suffered serious burns and inhalation of toxic gases. One of the problems of the kin of the deceased was identifying the bodies. Many bodies were charred beyond recognition. DNA profiling technology in 1978 was not as what it is today.

(Injured victim rushed to hospital. NAS 1978)

(One of the problems of the kin of the deceased was identifying the bodies. NAS 1978)

An inquiry found that due to a common practice of local shipyards in turning around ships under repair in the fastest possible time, safety procedures especially for hot work (welding, gas cutting etc.) were generally ignored. For Spyros, sparks from the cutting torch used during repairs, caused a fire which ignited an explosive vapour mixture within the aft starboard fuel tank of the vessel. The fuel tank had been contaminated by crude oil. The explosion ruptured the common bulkhead between the tank and the engine room, releasing the burning oil into the engine room and setting it on fire, killing the workers there instantly.

Indeed during 1970s, safety practices in shipyards were not strongly enforced. For Spyros case, a repair cutting tool might have caused the sparks to ignite the vapour of the crude oil on the tanker. More safety regulations were implemented after the disaster.

The district court findings placed the main blame on a hull fitter whose hot work resulted in the ignition for the blast. Malaysian worker Lim Hock Hoe was accused of using an oxyacetylene cutting torch near the aft starboard bunker tank without any hot-work certificate. He was also accused of applying heat to a part of the same tank before it was inspected and certified to be free from any explosive or flammable substance and safe for the application of heat. He was sentenced to six months’ jail for causing the death of 76 people.

Subsequently, Lim Hock Hoe won his High Court appeal against the conviction (The Straits Times, Feb 21, 1980). The Chief Justice, Mr Wee Chong Jin, found there was no criminal liability on Lim’s part. However, Mr Wee told him: “you have to live with the fact that it was your act which sparked off the chain of events that day (Oct 12, 1978).”

As for the rest:

Jurong Shipyard was fined $20,000 and Jurong Shipyard Executive was fined $30,000. (The Straits Times, March 20, 1979)

Shipyard's safety officer acquitted (The Straits Times, March 2, 1980)

I was a Singapore Polytechnic student at that time and joined many of my friends to Singapore General Hospital to pay visits to the unknown injured personnel. We met many general public at the hospital who were there to give courage to the victims and their family members. I am quite certain that Singaporeans were not branded as emotionless in that era. On the contrary, Singapore was a caring society inherited from the Kampong spirit then. Somewhat 30 over years later according to international pollster Gallup (2012), while Singapore has developed into a first-world economy, Singapore is also the most emotionless society in the world, beating the traditionally po-faced Georgia, Lithuania and Russia in a survey of more than 150 nations.

(We met many unknown general public at SGH, giving courage to the victims and their family members. Singaporeans were not branded as emotionless in that era. NAS 1978)

Jurong Shipyard was absorbed under Sembcorp Marine in the later years. 34 years later, another major industrial incident happened again in the same shipyard although it has changed owner. For Spyros incident in 1978, the victims were mainly Singaporean. For the "Jurong oil rig" incident in 2012, the victims were mainly from India and Bangladesh who come to Singapore to make a better life. It reflects major manpower landscape changes in the high risk industry.

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