Workers’ Lives and Helicopter Safety in the North Sea

The busiest commercial heliport in the world can be found in the oil and gas capital of Europe, Aberdeen, so the sight of helicopters passing overhead is a common sight there.

Unfortunately the safety record of these offshore workhorses is worrying. Between 1976 and 2014 there have been many incidents involving helicopters most without loss of life but more recent fatalities point to something not right with the industry.

July 2002 a Sirkorsky S-76A crashed into the North Sea killing 11 people.untitled

February 2009 a Super Puma EC225 carried out a controlled landing in the North Sea with no casualties.

April 2009 a Super Puma L2 crashed into the sea following a catastrophic gearbox failure killing 16 people.

May 2012 a Super Puma EC22 made a ditched landing when instruments indicated gearbox problems and the emergency backup failed, all 14 on board were rescued.

October 2012 a Super Puma EC225 came down in the North Sea after another gearbox problem with similar failure by the emergency backup. All 19 on board were rescued.

August 2013 a Super Puma L2 crashed into sea at Shetland killing 4 people.

Following this incident the model was temporarily grounded and not cleared to fly over water until new safety features were introduced.  Were any of the incidents, including the several that never made the headlines, caused by a fault in the Super Puma gearboxes, human error or the result of cutting corners because of commercial pressures?

Men and women working offshore are rightly nervous when about to board a Puma and the chances are they will be transported by Puma.  Super Pumas make up 60% of the British offshore fleet of helicopters. Reflecting opinions offshore the RMT union has called for a full public inquiry into helicopter flights in the UK.

In light of events the House of Commons Transport Select Committee recommended a full and independent inquiry into practices, concerned that commercial pressures imposed turn around restraints on mechanics’ ability to properly maintain helicopters in constant use but the UK government refused to grant one claiming it has ‘not seen any evidence of safety being compromised through commercial pressures’ a view much criticised. The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) has claimed there is undue pressure placed on them by companies using their services.

Why, people want to know are men and women employed in the British sector of the North Sea in greater danger of being involved in a helicopter accident than their Norwegian counterparts?

Since 1997 there have been no deaths due to helicopter crashes in the Norwegian sector, a statistic attributed to a tight system of regulation which begs the question what is going wrong in the British sector?

In the oil and gas workers’ own bulletin Enough is Enough in the autumn of 2013 offshore workers shared their concerns about flying safety claiming oil companies did not care about the welfare of workers, that they regarded them as expendable. One man wrote how he had been on the craft prior to the 2009 fatal crash when rumours of a fault were circulating.

Ian Wood, who recently became the media’s favourite voice for the oil and gas industries,  told a local newspaper that helicopter incidents did not merit a large-scale inquiry, ‘It’s not a big enough, complex problem – it’s nothing like Piper Alpha …We’re down to a type of helicopter that for some reason performs much worse in the UK sector of the North Sea than elsewhere.’

Well, yes isn’t that part of the problem?

‘Elsewhere’ and directly comparable with the UK is surely Norway. Same sea, similar circumstances but in contrast with the UK the safety record of commercial helicopters in its offshore sector is excellent. There has been one accident with no fatalities on the Norwegian continental shelf between 1999 and 2009. Before that there had been 12 fatalities at which point the industry decided to examine what had to be done to improve its safety.

As a result a report was drawn in 2010 which demonstrated the need for strict regulation and adoption of the latest proven helicopter technology and other measures such as reducing the number of night flights and improved training for pilots and technical personnel to reduce risk.

This Norwegian report cited workers’ fears – perceived risks – as vital sources of information on which to construct an effective and safe service. Norway operates a tripartite safety forum of companies, unions and a regulator.

A British researcher into North Sea safety suggested one vital reason for the improvement in safety in Norway was its adoption of the strict Norwegian Work Environment Act that gave power to Unions to halt work they regarded as dangerous.

Back on this side of the North Sea there is suspicion among some in offshore industries that the dangers involved in being ferried to and from installations by air have been played down by the authorities. There does not appear to be any urgency in tackling issues that would restore workers’ trust in the system.

The families of the 16 men killed in the 2009 Super Puma crash had to wait 5 years for a judgement on that accident. Then the fatal accident inquiry ruled the crash could have been prevented – pointing a finger at Bond Offshore Helicopters for failing to act on metal particles found in the Puma’s engine during routine checks which may have had an impact on the subsequent crash.

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Despite this opinion Bond escaped criminal investigations into breaches of health and safety rules with the Crown Office insisting there was too little evidence to warrant one and despite complaints that the Crown Office failed to take vital evidence from witnesses of multiple breaches of health and safety.

Bond owned up to ‘honest’ mistakes –  “We have always accepted that we made mistakes through honest confusion over telephone calls and emails.”

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/13/fatal-north-sea-helicoper-crash-inquiry-super-puma

Our offshore workers should expect to be shuttled back and fore to and from work in as safe conditions as their counterparts in the Norwegian sector. The implication of the UK government’s decision to shut down the need for a full inquiry, the industry lukewarm response, Ian Wood’s assertion that because these accidents involved fewer fatalities than Piper Alpha so do not merit a ‘big Cullen-style inquiry’ reinforces the view of many offshore that they are expendable in the pursuit of profit.

Ian Wood justified his opinion that a  large-scale inquiry was not needed when he said, ‘…we are down to a type of helicopter that for some reason performs safety-wise much worse in the UK sector of the North Sea than it does elsewhere ‘ and that it was not ‘a big enough complex problem’ to merit a bigger inquiry.

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The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have introduced measures to improve offshore helicopter safety including:

  • Prohibiting helicopter flights in the most severe sea conditions, so that the chance of a ditched helicopter capsizing is reduced and a rescue can be safely undertaken.
  • Pending further safety improvements to helicopters, passengers will only be able to fly if they are seated next to an emergency window exit to make it easier to get out of a helicopter in an emergency (unless helicopters are fitted with extra flotation devices or passengers are provided with better emergency breathing systems)
  • Requiring all passengers to have better emergency breathing equipment to increase underwater survival time unless the helicopter is equipped with side floats
  • In gathering evidence for the review the CAA engaged with trade unions representing industry workers and pilots, the oil and gas industry, helicopter operators, manufacturers, government, regulatory bodies and other experts in the field, as well as analyzing available data and reports.Is it too much to ask that one of the most profitable industries on earth provides high levels of safety for their essential workers? It should be a given that offshore employees have confidence that every time they step into a helicopter that they will survive the journey, that their lives are placed ahead of commercial profit, that no corners are cut in maintenance and that when conditions are rough flights are postponed.Until we know what is behind the high number of deaths from helicopter accidents in the North Sea it is likely more men and women will die simply getting to and from work.All this begs the question – why has it taken so long to recognize the dangers of flying in hostile environments such as over the North Sea, where in the event of a helicopter going down severe sea conditions can hamper rescues? Why has it taken 40 years to realise there is value in listening to the industry’s workers’ experiences?

    I’ll leave the last word to those who spoke to the Guardian on the matter of helicopter safety:

    ‘Ask survivors what the problem is and the answer is immediate; they seem surprised I even ask. “Money.” Sharp rubs thumb and forefinger together. “Money,” says Nugent. Balpa has said it is particularly concerned by “cut-throat” competition between helicopter operators bidding for oil firm contracts. Buckley notes that in the 1990s the oil companies brought in an initiative called Crine. “It stood for Cost Reduction In the New Era and was the basis for oil companies cutting back on routine maintenance, and other cost-saving measures. It doesn’t formally exist now, but the ethos is still very prevalent.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/29/super-puma-helicopter-crash-survivors-britains-toughest-commute

One Comment to “Workers’ Lives and Helicopter Safety in the North Sea”

  1. I recall that at the time of the CAA issuing guidelines-rules on safety that much was made in the media about the question of overweight, big girth passengers and the need for them to be seated by an exit capable of taking bulk. Now I take the point that this is sensible it does, however, avoid the central issue: helicopters were not crashing and ditching because of any obesity in oilmen; gear boxes were not being stripped of metal as a consequence of men’s body weight. The central problem, as you say, is the performance of helicopters and the question of routines in maintenance etc. In focusing upon the bulk of some oilmen the media provided a smokescreen behind which crucial questions could be hidden.

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