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UK legislators call for public inquiry into safety of offshore helicopters

08 July 2014

The safety of helicopters transporting workers to offshore rigs must be scrutinised at a full public inquiry, UK MPs have demanded, questioning the role of the regulator and checking a "creeping complacency" in safety standards. The transport select committee said in a report published on July 8 that the inquiry should address whether commercial pressure from oil and gas companies was putting workers at risk.

Stock image
Stock image

The Civil Aviation Authority conducted a wide-ranging review of offshore helicopter operations after a series of accidents and incidents in the North Sea, culminating in the crash of a Super Puma, killing four, last August near Shetland. It reported in February with a range of recommendations to improve safety on flights.

However, Louise Ellman, chair of the transport committee, said serious questions remained unanswered. She said: "After four accidents in five years, 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."
"Workers in the offshore industry have the right to know everything possible is being done to keep them safe. We call for the CAA to ensure that helicopter operators review all safety arrangements to guarantee all are fit for purpose."

In the report, the committee said that regulatory inertia at the European Aviation Safety Agency was exposing offshore workers to unnecessary risk by slowing down the implementation of safety improvements, and demanded that the government push the agency to make changes recommended by accident investigators rapidly and transparently.
The report said there was evidence of "a macho bullying culture" in the oil and gas industry, which had seen workers told to work elsewhere when they raised concerns about helicopter safety.

It also recommended that the Air Accident Investigation Board keep crash survivors better informed on the progress of its investigations in future.

The CAA responded to the committee's criticism by saying that safety improvements were being implemented as a priority. It said: "Any loss of life in aviation accidents is always tragic and the safety of those who rely on offshore helicopter flights is therefore our absolute priority.

"In February we announced over 70 actions and recommendations to improve safety, primarily aimed at preventing accidents, but also to improve survivability following an incident. These were widely welcomed by unions, helicopter operators, the oil and gas industry and Norwegian regulators and are bringing significant improvements in safety for those flying offshore in the UK and potentially worldwide.

"The new CAA-led Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group is ensuring operators and industry implement these changes as quickly as possible. It has already overseen the approval of a new significantly enhanced underwater emergency breathing system for offshore workers. This new system will be rolled out across the UK offshore industry this summer and autumn, with accompanying training."

The pilots' union Balpa welcomed the MPs' report. Its general secretary, Jim McAuslan, said it added "further weight to the urgent need for safety improvements". He said: "Pilots are working with the CAA and operators to improve helicopter safety offshore and support the 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 CAA retains full control over regulating offshore flights rather than delegating to an ill-equipped European regulator."

Commenting on the report, Oil & Gas UK’s Health and Safety Director Robert Paterson said: “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.”

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