MPs push for public inquiry into North Sea helicopter safety

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A cross-party committee of MPs have called for a full public inquiry into whether the safety of offshore helicopter flights is being jeopardised by “commercial pressure”.

The transport select committee’s call comes as it published a report outlining lessons to be learnt from the five North Sea helicopter crashes since 2009. The most recent, on 23 August 2013 as it approached Sumburgh Airport on Shetland, led to the death of four onboard workers.

The MPs highlighted how the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) investigation into the Sumburgh crash uncovered a number of issues, including how the pre-flight safety briefing failed to accurately explain how to use the helicopter’s emergency breathing system. Some survivors reported not using it due to the information they were given in the briefing.

However, there is no evidence, according to the report, that Super Puma variant helicopters, which were involved in all of the five crashes, are less safe than other helicopters.

“After five accidents since 2009, offshore workers’ confidence in helicopter safety is understandably low,” said Louise Ellman, the committee chair. “Despite work by the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority], 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.”

But the industry hit back at the suggestion safety was being undermined by commercial concerns, saying there was no evidence this was the case.

Having heard “troubling evidence” of a “macho bullying culture” in the sector, “including that offshore workers who were concerned about helicopter safety were told they should leave the industry”, the committee has urged operations managers in the North Sea to facilitate a culture of approachability and openness at all levels.

The committee also turned its fire on the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for what it called “regulatory inertia”, which it says is exposing offshore workers to unnecessary risk by slowing down the implementation of safety improvements to helicopters. It urged the UK government to push the EASA to implement changes recommended by the AAIB more rapidly.

One of the offshore unions, RMT, welcomed the call, saying only an “open, transparent, public inquiry” can address offshore workers’ concerns. The union’s acting general secretary Mick Cash said: “The tragic incident off Sumburgh on 23 August 2013, in which four offshore workers lost their lives, was an explicit illustration of how offshore workers’ safety is compromised by helicopter operators who are not held to effective, industry-wide standards, including in the contractual relationship with their customers – the oil and gas companies.”

Robert Paterson, the health and safety director of the offshore industry’s trade association, Oil & Gas UK, 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.

“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.”



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