On 23 August 2013, a Super Puma L2 helicopter, owned by CHC, on its way from the Borgsten Dolphin semi-submersible drilling rig, was on approach to Sumburgh Airport when it crashed. Four passengers were killed. That was the fifth accident in four years involving a helicopter carrying oil and gas industry personnel to and from offshore installations in the North Sea.
Yesterday, the Transport Select Committee of the UK Parliament, which had launched an inquiry to examine how operators, the oil and gas industry and regulators can improve standards for offshore workers, issued a report in which it says that a full, independent, public inquiry must be convened to address whether commercial pressure from oil and gas companies affects the safety of offshore helicopter operations.
Extensive oil firms’ influence
According to the report, which quoted the CAA findings, all the helicopter operators reported that customer influence in operational matters was too extensive. The perception that contracts are offered at too short a timescale and awarded on lowest cost is also prevalent.
The CAA considers that this may reduce a helicopter operator’s capacity to recruit and train for a new commitment, and may challenge standards in the drive for a successful bid
This inquiry must also examine the role of the Civil Aviation Authority, say MPs on the Transport Select Committee.
Launching a report examining the lessons to be learnt from recent accidents and that CAA review, Louise Ellman chair of the Transport Committee said: “After five accidents since 2009, offshore workers’ confidence in helicopter safety is understandably low.
“Despite work by the CAA, serious questions remain unanswered about offshore helicopter safety in the competitive commercial environment of the North Sea. We fear a creeping complacency may be affecting safety standards.
“The role and effectiveness of the CAA has not been adequately examined. Only a full and independent public inquiry would have the power and authority to investigate properly.”
MPs highlighted how the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) investigation into the Sumburgh crash uncovered a number of serious issues. In particular, AAIB found pre-flight safety briefing did not accurately explain how to use the type of Emergency Breathing System (EBS) supplied on the helicopter.
The Transport Committee revealed that survivors of the accident said they did not use the EBS, because they had insufficient time to breathe into it before they were submerged. If they had known how the EBS worked, the survivors were confident that they would have used it. Some survivors described their intense psychological stress after reading the AAIB’s findings on the EBS, the committee said.
In response to this the Transport Committee said in the report: “Pre-flight briefing material must accurately describe how to use safety equipment. It is deeply disturbing that it took a fatal accident before the flawed EBS briefing was identified. The CAA must ensure that helicopter operators regularly review all safety briefing material to ensure that it is up to date. In addition, the CAA must consult the offshore work force to ensure that safety briefing material is easily understood and fit for purpose.”
Macho bullying culture
In its report, the Transport Committee also highlighted the fact that the recent accidents all involved Super Puma helicopters, but added that the committee heard no conclusive evidence that Super Puma variants are less safe than other helicopters used in the UK offshore sector.
The North Sea is served by a mixed fleet of around 95 helicopters including models manufactured by Airbus, Sikorsky and AgustaWestland. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) stated that Super Puma models AS332 L, L1, L2 and EC225 account for 60% of the North Sea helicopter fleet with the Sikorsky S-92 and the Airbus Super Puma EC225 serving as the workhorses of the industry.
The Transport Committee then said that the fact that Super Pumas form majority of helicopters used in the UK offshore oil and gas sector means that it is unsurprising that they are involved in more accidents than other models.
“We welcome the work by operators, manufacturers and industry safety groups to engage with the offshore workforce to address its concerns about Super Pumas,” the committee said in the report.
“However, we heard troubling evidence about a macho bullying culture in the oil and gas industry, including that offshore workers who were concerned about helicopter safety were told that they should leave the industry. We believe that more must be done to facilitate a culture of approachability and openness at all levels,” the Transport Select Committee added in a statement.
Pilots welcome the report
Helicopter pilots operating around the UK Continental Shelf and represented by the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) welcomed the findings of a Transport Select Committee report into offshore helicopter safety.
General Secretary of BALPA, Jim McAuslan, said: “The Transport Select Committee report adds further weight to the urgent need for safety improvements to prevent accidents and make every offshore flight a safe one.”
“Pilots are working with the CAA and operators to improve helicopter safety offshore and support the Select Committee’s call for a public inquiry. This should examine issues highlighted in the report including the safety risks of commercial pressure on operators and ensuring the UK regulator, CAA, retains full control over regulating offshore flights rather than delegating to an ill-equipped European regulator.”
Oil & Gas UK disagrees
Commenting on the Transport Select Committee’s report into offshore helicopter safety, Oil & Gas UK’s Health and Safety Director Robert Paterson said:
“Safety is a key priority for the oil and gas industry and we never stop working to find opportunities to make our workforce safer. The CAA, government, trade unions, oil and gas companies, helicopter operators and the workforce all have a vital role to play in this. The Helicopter Safety Steering Group is an excellent ongoing example of good collaboration in practice and the recent industry-driven effort to implement the new and improved Emergency Breathing System 18 months ahead of the original CAA deadline is another.
“We have yet to see any evidence of the unsubstantiated allegations concerning improper commercial pressure affecting safety outcomes which are repeated in this report. It is vital that everyone plays their part in keeping the workforce safe and if anyone has evidence of commercial issues overriding good safety practices, they must report this immediately. There are many ways to do this – safety representatives, Trade Unions, the Inter Union Offshore Oil Committee (IUOOC), Step Change in Safety, the Helicopter Safety Steering Group, the new CAA forum – Offshore Helicopter Safety Advisory Group (OHSAG) or indeed direct to Oil & Gas UK or the CAA.”
The crash off Sumburgh, Shetland, occurred on 23 August 2013. An AS332 L2 Super Puma carrying 18 people was on approach to Sumburgh Airport where it was due to refuel before returning to Aberdeen.
At 17.17 the helicopter crashed into the sea 1.5 nautical miles (2,780 metres) west of Sumburgh airport. Four passengers died as a result. They were Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin, Gary McCrossan, 59, from Inverness, and George Allison, 57, from Winchester.
An interim report by the AAIB found no evidence of mechanical failure.
The AAIB published a further bulletin on 18 October 2013, which found that the rescue boat did not reach the crash location for nearly an hour, although a search and rescue helicopter arrived after 26 minutes. The rescue boat was unable to launch from its slipway due to unfavourable tidal conditions.
A 2010 airport safety survey suggested that the slipway was useable in only 11% of tidal conditions. An attempt was made to use another launch site, but the rescue boat became bogged down in the soft sand. When the rescue boat was finally launched successfully, it had to make a six nautical mile open sea transit to the crash location.
The AAIB recommended that Sumburgh Airport “provides a water rescue capability, suitable for all tidal conditions, for the area of sea to the west of Sumburgh” and that “the CAA review the risks associated with the current water rescue provision for the area of sea to the west of Sumburgh Airport and take appropriate action.”
The crash investigation is continuing.