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UK government rules out public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety

27 October 2014

Calls for a public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety have been rejected by the UK government. The House of Commons Transport Select Committee had recommended a "full and independent" inquiry earlier this year after four people died in a Super Puma crash near Sumburgh in Shetland in August last year.

Stock image
Stock image

This was the fifth helicopter accident involving the transfer of oil and gas industry personnel in the North Sea since 2009. The transport committee had claimed there was evidence commercial pressure could put safety at risk.

However, in its response, the Department for Transport said on October 27 it had not seen any evidence to suggest that safety was being compromised and confirmed the government did not support the call for a public inquiry.

The government response noted: "We are pleased to note that the committee has found no evidence that the Super Puma helicopter is any less safe than other helicopters used in the UK offshore sector and that there is also no evidence to suggest that UK operations are any less safe than operations conducted by other states, particularly Norway, who operate under a similar safety regime in the same hostile North Sea environment.

"With regards to commercial pressure, neither the CAA, industry nor government has seen any evidence to suggest that safety is being compromised as a result of commercial pressure from the industry."

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is the regulator responsible for overseeing the sector.

Jim McAuslan, general secretary of pilots association Balpa, said the situation felt like a cover-up.

The transport committee said it had been told by some in the industry that offshore workers who raise concerns about helicopter safety have been told they should leave the oil and gas industry and that there was a "macho bullying culture".

Malcolm Webb, chief executive of Oil & Gas UK, said: "The Committee has taken a report of a single, three word quote taken out of context to substantiate a wholly unfounded finding that there is a "macho bullying culture" in the industry.

"The fact that the quote was made is hugely regrettable but it is in no way reflective of the industry position regarding safety. A better and more representative example of the industry's attitude to safety and aviation safety in particular, would have been to note that when concerns about the gear shafts arose following a EC225 aircraft ditching in May 2012 the industry, helicopter and oil company operators plus contractors and trade unions acting together, took the unprecedented step to call a "time out for safety" and voluntarily grounded all the relevant aircraft at considerable cost and operational disruption whilst checks were undertaken."

Webb added that he did not support the calls for a public inquiry describing it as a "distraction" for the work of implementing the CAA's recommendations.

A further call in the transport committee's report for the CAA to conduct a joint review with the Norwegian offshore industry into safety, has been agreed to along with a series of meetings with helicopter crash survivors to learn from their experiences.

Andrew Haines, chief executive of the CAA, said: "The safety of those who rely on offshore helicopter flights is our absolute priority and the steps we announced in our February review will result in significant improvements in safety, some of which will be implemented quickly.
"They include: Prohibiting helicopter flights in the most severe sea conditions to improve the chances of rescue and survival; providing passengers with better emergency breathing systems; modifications to helicopters and survival equipment; and changes to the way pilots are trained.

"Taken together, we are confident that these will represent a real step forward in improving offshore helicopter safety and build on the many years of progress to date."

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