Fears fly around helicopter safety

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Nearly 24,000 people in Norway work on offshore oil and gas platforms, commuting regularly to their jobs in helicopters, often in stormy conditions. The fatal crash of one of them in sunny and unusually calm weather Friday has rekindled concerns over helicopter safety, and stoked fear to the point that the country’s transport minister saw a need to address safety issues on Tuesday.

Commuting by helicopter is part of life for offshore oil workers, like disembarking here from a flight to Statoil's Snorre A platform in the North Sea. PHOTO: Statoil/Harald Pettersen

Commuting by helicopter is part of life for offshore oil workers, like those disembarking here from a flight to Statoil’s Snorre A platform in the North Sea. PHOTO: Statoil/Harald Pettersen

“We have a long and proud history regarding safety around helicopter use offshore,” Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen told reporters after a meeting Tuesday morning with aviation authorities and the commission investigating the cause of Friday’s crash that killed all 13 on board. “That doesn’t mean that we can ever rest, because safety is something we have to work with all the time.”

It may take as long as a year to find out what caused the crash of the Airbus Super Puma 225E helicopter operated by CHC Helikopter Service. When the accident investigation is complete, Solvik-Olsen said, “we will of course look at what’s necessary to do, so that safety around helicopter use on the Norwegian Continental Shelf is as good as it possible.”

Solvik-Olsen denied “speculation” that the Norwegian government is considering implementing new EU rules that some worry may affect safety routines. “We have been heavily involved in the work (around the new rules) and have made many proposals that have been followed,” Solvik-Olsen said, “but there’s been no decision on whether the rules will apply in Norway. Nor will a decision be taken in the coming weeks.”

Warnings and criticism swirl
Union leaders representing offshore workers have issued warnings this week, and criticized oil companies for being so keen to cut costs in the midst of the current industry downturn that it can jeopardize safety. Leif Sande, leader of the union Industri Energi, has asked Statoil’s CEO, Eldar Sætre, to drop new demands regarding helicopter use that are aimed at cutting costs.

Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that Statoil, for example, has cut back on helicopter use, from around 50 on its Norwegian oil fields to just 30. Those remaining are thus expected to fly several more hours every day, with shorter periods between flights. The so-called “turn-around” time for each helicopter is being cut from an hour to just 30 minutes, and if a helicopter is delayed, Statoil has stated it may fine its operator.

Sande and many of his members claim Statoil’s new demands reduce the time mechanics and pilots have to conduct safety checks. “This will put huge pressure on the technicians and pilots when they know that the companies are in a tough economic situation,” Sande told DN. “They need to get the helicopter in the air without delay. When folks have less time to do their jobs, the job isn’t done as well.”

Sætre insists on ‘safety first’
Statoil CEO Sætre braved a helicopter flight himself on Monday, to meet with workers on the Gullfaks B platform from which the doomed helicopter on Friday had departed. Those on board thus lost 11 colleagues, plus the helicopter’s two pilots. Sætre insisted that safety will “still come first” for Statoil.

“We will never implement changes in efficiency that would increase the level of risk on the fields,” Sætre told DN. “The investigation will give answers on what happened here (Friday’s crash). But safety will prevail over every measure that’s aimed at reducing costs.”

Arne Roland, managing director of CHC Helikopter Service, conceded that the market for helicopter services has become “more demanding” after oil prices fell but he also stressed safety. Canadian-owned CHC is under financial pressure itself, and Roland also acknowledged a “great need for efficiency,” but he also claimed it would not come at the cost of safety.

“We never compromise on safety,” Roland told DN. “I wouldn’t be able to look my colleagues in the eyes to say that safety was being reduced from the highest level.”

‘Could have been any of us’
Sande of the union said he believes helicopter safety in Norway is higher than on the British side of the North Sea, where there have been seven fatal helicopter accidents to and from oil fields since 1992. British workers have complained and warned their Norwegian colleagues about the effects of cost-cutting, while Norwegian firms reportedly have looked to Great Britain to see how costs can be cut.

Many Norwegian offshore workers remain nervous, and some have even decided to quit after Friday’s accident. Not Atle Håvåg, though, who was among workers waiting at the Helikopter Terminal at the Sola airport outside Stavanger on Monday. He noted, though, that the victims “could have been any of us,” and he was glad the helicopter model involved has since been grounded.

“It’s clear that an accident affects all of us, and losing good colleagues will affect us for a long time,” Håvåg told local newspaper Rogalands avis (RA). “But safety won’t get worse because of the accident. I feel safe.” Neither he nor colleague Kristian Mæland, though, want to fly in a Super Puma again.

“None of those at home wants us to travel out (to the fields) again, they’re probably more anxious and nervous than we are,” Mæland told RA. “So I think the most about them.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund