Offshore industry body sounds safety warning over helicopter crackdown

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Oil industry chiefs have voiced fears that new helicopter rules will jeopardise the safety of thousands of offshore workers.

Trade body Oil and Gas UK (OGUK) has told MPs it is concerned that the strict new North Sea regulations – due to come into force in June – could backfire and endanger workers.

The changes are being made in an effort to improve safety in the wake of a spate of helicopter crashes offshore, including a ditching off Shetland last August that killed four workers, including a man from Inverness and an Elgin woman.

However, OGUK has now warned publicly that the tight timetable for the reforms means essential maintenance work on offshore platforms and pipelines may be shelved – raising the likelihood of “serious incidents” such as leaks.

The body also said job-security concerns among staff – particularly overweight workers, who could be banned from flying under the rules – would also “divert attention from essential safety activities”.

And it raised fears that the planned changes would lead to an overall rise in the number of North Sea helicopter trips, increasing the chances of accidents.

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In evidence to Westminster’s transport select committee, OGUK said: “We do have a significant concern that the overall safety of the offshore workforce could be jeopardised by the proposed ambitious timescale for the implementation of some major operational changes recommended by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority).”

A spokesman for the regulator defended the timetable last night, insisting it was “realistic and achievable”.

The CAA proposed the new regulations in February following an investigation into the recent helicopter ditchings.

The regulator said that from June 1 passengers would be able to fly offshore only if they had specialist emergency breathing equipment or the helicopter had an extra flotation system.

If neither was in place by the deadline, only window seats – which are all beside an emergency exit – could be occupied.

Helicopter operators and trade unions do not believe that 28,000 workers can be retrained to use the new “category A” breathing equipment within the timetable, or that the floats could be installed, because they do not currently exist.

Using only window seats would reduce the capacity of the aircraft and lead to more flights to get the same number of personnel offshore.

 Also, from April next year, oil workers who cannot fit through an emergency window while wearing a survival suit will not be allowed to fly in a helicopter.

Trade union leaders have already expressed fears about the plans.

Industry chiefs were also known to have private concerns about the timetable, and now OGUK has raised three main issues in its evidence to the Commons transport select committee inquiry into helicopter safety.

The first is that “limiting helicopter seating capacity from June 2014 can have serious adverse consequences for safety-critical maintenance of installations”.

It said 2014 was due to be a “catch-up” year for key maintenance and the number of flights generally rose during such work, but that could be put at risk by limiting the seating numbers.

“Essential maintenance does now need to go ahead to prevent the potential for hydrocarbon releases, which could cause serious incidents,” OGUK warned.

The organisation said it might be possible to increase the number of flights with the current helicopter fleet size but this raised risks “by placing pilots under greater strain and more pressure on ground crew to complete essential helicopter maintenance”.

On the issue of overweight workers, the evidence said: “The offshore workforce is already expressing its concerns over the adverse impacts for job security, especially for those of larger build. Such concerns can and do divert attention from essential safety activities.”

Transport committee chairwoman Louise Ellman has written to the CAA to ask it to respond to the concerns raised by OGUK.

A CAA spokesman said last night: “We believe everything we have proposed is realistic and achievable.” He added that the regulator would submit further evidence to the transport committee.