Regulators have backed down in a row over the introduction of new helicopter safety rules – and pledged that no offshore workers will lose their jobs for being overweight.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced yesterday that it would push back a June 1 deadline for bringing in key changes, after industry leaders warned it could endanger thousands of North Sea workers.
It also reassured concerned employees that new regulations which mean passengers who cannot fit through an emergency exit window would not be able to fly would be “sensibly managed” with the aim that no one loses their job as a result.
The altered proposals were widely welcomed last night, with one group saying “safety is the real winner”.
The new rules are being brought in to try to improve safety in the wake of a series of helicopter crashes in the North Sea in recent years, including an incident off Shetland last August which killed four offshore workers.
It was revealed last month that trade body Oil and Gas UK had written to Westminster’s transport committee to warn of the potential consequences of the tight timetable outlined for the reforms.
The body said it would mean essential maintenance work on offshore platforms and pipelines being shelved – raising the likelihood of “serious incidents” such as leaks.
It was also concerned that the planned changes would lead to an overall rise in the number of North Sea helicopter trips, increasing the chances of accidents.
Initially, the CAA had said that from June 1 passengers would only be able to fly offshore if they had emergency breathing equipment or the helicopter had an extra flotation system.
If neither of these was in place by the strict deadline, only window seats could be occupied on helicopters, meaning far fewer workers could be flown offshore.
After talks with industry leaders, the CAA announced yesterday that it would put back the deadline until September 1.
However, it also said that it would significantly bring forward the date from which the improved emergency breathing system will be compulsory, now January 1 next year, rather than April 1, 2016.
CAA head of flight operations, Rob Bishton, said: “The safety of those who work offshore is our absolute priority, and as such we must also consider their safety on offshore installations as well as on board flights.
“We have listened carefully to the views of the industry, the unions and the helicopter operators.”
Oil and Gas UK chief executive, Malcolm Webb, said: “By adjusting the timescale for limiting helicopter seating capacity to better align with the availability of category A emergency breathing systems, the CAA has facilitated the work of the fast-approaching annual turnaround season, when safety-critical maintenance is carried out during the summer months.
“Our discussions with CAA are a safety success story for the UK Continental Shelf.
“All of the many risk drivers have been considered and balanced in such a way that these are effectively managed in the best interest of safety offshore.”
Les Linklater, team leader of the Step Change in Safety partnership, said: “Safety is the real winner in this for me and we have the right outcome.
“We will now be concentrating on its deployment and the training which will be necessary, to ensure that we meet the requirement of mandatory use of a category A emergency breathing system on offshore flights.”
Pilots union Balpa said: “Looked at narrowly this would seem a pragmatic solution to some timetabling difficulties.
“But Balpa members remain concerned that there remains a fundamental problem whereby commercial interests trump safety priorities.
“That is why we continue to argue for an independent judicial inquiry along the lines of that led by Lord Cullen after Piper Alpha.”