A banned safety device which can help find offshore workers lost at sea is on the verge of being reintroduced, oil and gas bosses revealed last night.
Personal locator beacons (PLBs) were withdrawn from use in March, just weeks after a Bond Super Puma EC225 with 18 people on board ditched in the North Sea as it approached a BP-owned production platform.
Everyone survived that accident but PLBs – which are carried by workers on flights to help find them in water – were found to have switched off the main beacon on the helicopter and were subsequently banned.
However, there were pleas for the immediate return of PLBs following the April 1 helicopter disaster which claimed the lives of 16 men off the coast of Peterhead.
Last night Oil and Gas UK revealed that it had met bosses at the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to pave the way for the devices to be brought back in July.
Bob Keiller, chairman of the UK Oil and Gas Helicopter Task Group, said: “Search-and-rescue operations rely on the powerful long-range rescue beacons on helicopters to home in on accident sites. We were therefore concerned to learn that the weaker personal beacons, with a more limited signal range, had the ability to switch these off.
“Following an instruction from the CAA to the helicopter operators to stop carrying the personal beacons in ‘standby’ mode in case they were accidentally activated and interfered with aircraft safety systems, the industry withdrew the personal beacons until a technical solution could be found.
“We have been giving this our urgent attention. An essential step in the way forward is the early removal of the ‘smart’ shut-down technology from the aircraft beacons, so that they cannot be accidentally shut down.”
All PLBs used offshore in the UK will now be tested by the manufacturers to make sure they can not be switched on accidentally. Once a model has passed the tests, the results will be given to the helicopter operators who will make a case to the CAA for reintroducing them.
Additional checks will be made at heliports and oil and gas installations to check that no PLBs have been activated accidentally by passengers before they board.
The CAA, helicopter operators and representatives from Oil and Gas UK will meet again at the end of this month to agree a timetable for the reintroduction of the personal beacons.
Jake Molloy, regional organiser for the RMT union in Aberdeen, said workers will be “reassured”. He said: “Nobody wants to be in a position where they are having to use these beacons, but in the event of someone ending up in the water it is reassuring to know help is at hand.”