WESTMINSTER’S Transport Committee today called for offshore workers, oil giants, and helicopter companies to submit evidence to their wide ranging inquiry into helicopter safety in the wake of the Super Puma disaster off Shetland in which four oil workers were killed.
The House of Commons committee published its detailed terms of reference as the Unite union launched a major drive for immediate improvements to the safety of North Sea helicopter flights following the Sumburgh Head crash last August.
The union’s campaign - “Back Home Safe” - is demanding increased investment to create a larger North Sea helicopter fleet for crew change flights, changes to the seating configuration inside helicopters, and changes to the design of choppers used for offshore flights.
Launching the committee’s call for evidence, the chair of the Transport Committee, Louise Ellman MP, said: “In August four oil workers were killed in a helicopter crash off the Shetland Isles. This was the fifth accident in four years, and the second of which that has tragically resulted in fatalities. The frequency of these accidents is a major cause for concern.”
She continued: “Our inquiry will examine ways to minimise the risk to offshore workers. To this end we hope to hear from workers themselves, oil and gas firms, helicopter manufacturers, operators and pilots.
”We welcome the CAA’s investigation into helicopter safety that they are running with their Norwegian counterparts. We intend to hear evidence on their findings when they report and examine how their recommendations should be implemented.”
The committee plans to investigate the safety of offshore helicopter flights in the UK, compare the UK’s safety record with that of other countries, and to examine what steps could be taken by industry to improve the safety of offshore flights.
Speaking at the “Back Home Safe” launch in Aberdeen, Tommy Campbell, the regional organiser of Unite, said: “It shouldn’t come as any surprise that offshore workers have a lack of confidence now and that they are very, very scared when they are travelling to and fro from work.
“We are dealing here with an industry that is very, very wealthy and there needs to an increased investment in the helicopter fleet. At the end of the day, what we want are the helicopters that are taking the workers offshore and taking them back onshore to be recognised as the best in the world.
“We are currently looking at 35 year-old designs that obviously we believe are not necessarily fit or the 21st Century.”
‘Training increase needed’
Mr Campbell, who reiterated his demand for a full independent public inquiry into helicopter safety, said: “There also has to be now a significant increase in offshore survival training to make sure that, if there is ever a ditching again the North Sea, that the rescue plan that is in place will make sure that all survivors are recovered and that hopefully nobody has died.”
Chris Gordon, of Thompson’s Solicitors who represents twelve of the families bereaved in the 2009 Super Puma disaster off Peterhead in which all 16 people on board were killed, backed the Unite campaign.
Mr Gordon, who also represents three of the bereaved families and one of the survivors from last August’s fatal crash, said: “In the last 16 years in Norwegian territorial waters we have had zero deaths. In the Scottish territorial waters we have had 38 deaths.”
He added: “We support the Unite campaign. It is clear that those that travel on helicopters out to the rigs are concerned and that there are many, many issues that need to be corrected.”
Concerns ‘taken seriously’
Frank Doran, the Labour MP for Aberdeen North, also backed the Unite campaign. He said: “At the moment there are four separate inquiries, one being carried out by the Civil Aviation Authority and the second which will be carried out by the oil and gas industry, as well as the delayed Fatal Accident Inquiry into the April 2009 helicopter crash which resulted in 16 deaths. In addition, there will at some stage require to be a separate Fatal Accident Inquiry into the four deaths caused by the recent incident.
“All of these inquiries are worthwhile but they will not have the effect of a full independent public inquiry. If the whole industry is to be examined, this must include the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority. It cannot effectively examine itself.”
A spokesman for Oil and Gas UK, the pan industry trade body, said: “Oil and Gas UK acknowledges the concerns raised by the Unite union and takes them very seriously. Oil and Gas UK is working closely with Step Change in Safety, who is aware of similar concerns raised by the workforce, with the helicopter operators to review the emergency lighting inside the passenger cabin and with Eurocopter to review the seating configuration of the EC225.”