28 Aug 2013

Helicopter crash sparks offshore safety row

In the wake of the Shetland helicopter crash which killed four people at the weekend, unions and the oil industry are facing off over safety for offshore workers.

Can offshore working ever be a no-risk job? (Getty)

Investigators are combing through the wreckage of the Super Puma helicopter which ditched into the sea without warning while carrying 18 offshore oil and gas workers on Friday evening.

The crash claimed the lives of three men and one woman, and officials want to find the truth behind what caused it – although they have been hampered by the loss of the black box recorder in the tail of the helicopter, which remains unaccounted for.

But in the meantime, the battle of words back on shore has begun.

On the one side, there’s the unions. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) staged a rally in Aberdeen on Wednesday and said lessons must be learned about safety. The crash was the fifth incident involving Super Pumas in the North Sea since 2009.

One thing’s for sure, our members shouldn’t pay the ultimate price for going to work. Bob Crow, RMT

RMT general secretary Bob Crow attended the rally, admitting there was no way of knowing what caused the crash. But he added: “One thing’s for sure, our members shouldn’t pay the ultimate price of losing their life as a result of going to work.”

Union leaders are known for not pulling any rhetorical punches, and they would claim that their straight talking has won them at least one victory after the weekend’s crash – they are now hopeful union officials will be allowed access to platforms and heliports after years of being “denied” access.

‘No b******t briefing’

The problem is, though, that there’s another colourful exchange doing the rounds which is not helping matters or restoring confidence in the industry’s safety record for workers.

It comes from what has been described as a “no b******t, no PR spin briefing” from gas company Total, which took place earlier this month on the Borgsten Dolphin rig, the same one Friday’s helicopter flew from.

The briefing took place before the crash and was intended to reassure offshore workers about the safety of the Super Puma EC225 helicopter, which had been out of service for some months while investigators looked into two previous incidents in 2012.

A pilot from CHC Helicopters, which is one of the companies flying workers to the offshore platforms, told workers concerned about the choppers that he had total faith – plus, he added, it was that or nothing.

“I have to say, how else are we going to get there? It is what we do,” the pilot said.

“At some point we have to put our big boy pants on and say either ‘we believe’, either what I am telling you is the truth and I’m willing to sit in the front and risk my family and everything that I have got. If you don’t, well, I wouldn’t force any of my pilots to fly if they didn’t want to.”

I have to say, how else are we going to get there? It is what we do. Pilot at safety briefing

Another official added: “It makes no difference whether you can go on EC225, an L2 an S92 or any other helicopter. You’re taking the same risk. If you can’t live with that risk then you can’t work offshore.”

Strong words – but a spokeswoman for CHC told Channel 4 News context was everything.

“We understand how these comments may look following Friday’s incident but they are out of context,” she said. “If people heard the whole recording they would understand this pilot was trying to get his message across as a fellow North Sea worker and not a corporate spokesperson.”

It’s also worth pointing out that the briefing discussed a different model to the one which crashed on Friday – which was an AS332 L2.

Are workers happy with safety?

But are workers being forced into flying when they are not comfortable with it?

That would go against guarantees given by industry bosses through the Helicopter Safety Steering Group that no worker would be forced to fly if they had any reservations over helicopter safety. It’s a point which the Unite union plans to raise in its meeting with the steering group in Aberdeen on Wednesday, when the current temporary suspension of Super Pumas will also be up for debate.

The industry says no one is being pressured and has cautioned against speculation while the crash investigation is ongoing. The voice of the offshore industry, Oil & Gas UK, said at the weekend that helicopter safety remains a major focus. And a worker in the Scottish helicopter industry told Channel 4 News that the risks should not be over-exaggerated.

“The risk is the same in any taxi, but if one taxi driver pulls out of a roundabout and the other decides to wait. There’s the risk,” he said.

“The alternative is boats, which is dangerous at the rig end in a strong sea from the deck of a boat to the platform of a rig…I’d rather fly.”

But while he did offer his views on the crash, it is interesting that he wished to be anonymous. At the same time, any workers who spoke to Channel 4 News also requested anonymity – none of which suggests an industry where safety, or indeed other, concerns are openly raised and dealt with.

The helicopter worker added: “I would say the industry for offshore workers needs confidence again as it’s shattered.”

It certainly seems that way at the moment: at the same briefing reported above, apparently one worker said that every colleague he had spoken to said they did not want to get on the helicopters. This is despite the fact that the older models are, insiders say, fairly similar to newer versions on safety features and the industry has been using helicopters for transport for years.

So as the investigators piece together what happened from the crash wreckage, there is more piecing together going on as well, or at least workers believe there should be: of the shattered confidence of workers in their industry, their bosses, their own safety and their transportation.