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August 15, 2014

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Offshore helicopter safety

The Transport Committee’s report into offshore helicopter safety raises serious questions. Tim Hill asks if there is too much commercial pressure on the industry.
In August 2013, four passengers were killed when a helicopter crashed into the sea while on approach to Sumburgh Airport on Shetland. The incident was the fifth helicopter accident since 2009 to involve the transfer of oil and gas industry personnel to and from offshore installations in the North Sea.The accident prompted the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to conduct a review of offshore helicopter safety.Published in February 2014, its report made strong recommendations on safety governance, airworthiness and equipment as well as establishing the Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group.

The Transport Committee published its report on 30 June 2014 and, Louise Ellman, the chair of the Transport Committee, commented: “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.”

The committee expressed concern in relation to the events uncovered by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) investigation into the crash, particularly in relation to the pre-flight material, which did not fully represent the type of Emergency Breathing System (EBS) supplied to passengers.

Consequently, some of the survivors of the crash had explained to the committee that, based on the briefing, they had decided against using the EBS.

Commenting on the flawed safety video, Ms Ellman said: “It is appalling that it took a fatal accident in such circumstances before inadequacies in safety briefing were identified.

“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.”

MPs were keen to encourage a more open and approachable culture within the oil and gas industry and criticised an environment of “macho bullying”. The report cited examples of offshore workers who were told that they should leave the industry when they raised concerns about helicopter safety.

Another area of concern was that regulatory inertia on the part of the European Safety Agency (EASA) is leading to unnecessary risk for offshore workers. MPs recommended that the Department for Transport must encourage EASA to speed up the process of implementing safety recommendations from national investigation boards.

Additionally, it was recommended that the Department for Transport ascertain what practical steps EASA is taking in order to speed up implementing such safety recommendations.

Finally, the committee concluded that the CAA did not look at two areas of offshore helicopter operations in sufficient detail. One of the areas is the impact of commercial pressure on helicopter safety.

The other was the CAA’s role and effectiveness. MPs were concerned that the CAA could not appropriately lead on such an investigation and that instead it must be a full, independent public inquiry in order to have sufficient resources, remit and power to adequately tackle the two issues.

The report concluded that the Department for Transport must commission ongoing independent research to examine improvements and threats to offshore helicopter safety.

It also recommended an independent public inquiry to examine the commercial pressure on helicopter safety and the role and effectiveness of the CAA itself. Commentators await the Government’s response to the report with interest.

Tim Hill is a partner at Eversheds LLP

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