Offshore helicopter safety - Transport Committee Contents

3  CAA Review

28. The CAA published its review of offshore helicopter safety on 20 February 2014. The CAA review sets out 32 safety interventions which fall within the remit of the CAA and 29 recommendations which fall within the remit of other parties. The review is wide ranging and its proposed changes will have a significant impact on how the offshore industry transports workers. Some of the most notable recommendations include:

·  The establishment of a new Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group to work for improved safety in helicopter operations on the UK Continental Shelf. The safety forum is chaired by the CAA and includes the key organisations from the offshore industry. The Safety Forum is inspired by a similar body in Norway, which it will work alongside;

·  Helicopter flights will be prohibited in the most severe sea conditions, except in response to an emergency, so the chance of a ditched helicopter capsizing is reduced and a rescue can be safely undertaken;

·  Pending further safety improvements to helicopters, passengers will be able to fly only if they are seated next to an emergency window exit to make it easier to evacuate (unless helicopters are fitted with extra flotation devices or passengers are provided with a better EBS);

·  Operators will be prohibited from carrying passengers on offshore flights, except in response to an offshore emergency, whose body size, including required safety and survival equipment, is incompatible with push-out window emergency exit size;

·  Passengers will be required to have an enhanced EBS to increase underwater survival time unless the helicopter is equipped with side floats; and

·  There will be changes to the way pilots are trained and checked. For instance the CAA will review all helicopter training programmes to ensure that basic flight skills are maintained, so that crews can deal with manual flight if required. (This is in response to concerns about new helicopter pilots joining the industry who rely too much on automated systems.)


29. The CAA was criticised by Oil & Gas UK for its ambitious timescale for implementing some actions. In particular, Oil & Gas UK objected to the seating restrictions, which were scheduled for introduction on 1 June 2014. Oil & Gas UK stated that important safety maintenance work would require an increase in offshore personnel this summer and that seating restrictions would increase risk, because the measure would result in more flights and more stress on pilots.[37] After negotiations in the new Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group, the 1 June 2014 deadline was extended by three months to 1 September 2014 to allow for that maintenance work. At the same time, the deadline for implementing the compulsory use of the Category A EBS was brought forward a year to 1 January 2015.

30. Trade unions have criticised the CAA's plans to prevent helicopter operators carrying passengers whose body size means that they cannot escape through push-out window exits in an emergency.[38] The measure will prevent larger workers from going offshore, which will have serious consequences for their job security. That concern is legitimate and requires careful management. Oil & Gas UK is funding its own survey of passenger body size at Robert Gordon University.[39] The CAA told us:

    We are working with the industry to establish the most appropriate body size metric and corresponding limit in relation to exit window size. Exit sizes vary from one helicopter type to another and even from one seat row to the next on some helicopters. So the impact of this measure could be minimised by restricting passengers to certain helicopter types and/or specific seat rows based on their size.[40]

The CAA told us that it does not foresee that change leading to job losses. Further guidance for offshore workers is required along with potential solutions for those affected. We support the CAA recommendation, because it is not acceptable for workers to fly offshore if they cannot fit through exits in an emergency, which risks not only their lives but those of their colleagues whose evacuation might be obstructed.

31. We welcome the CAA review of offshore helicopter safety and congratulate it on quickly establishing the Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group to implement its recommendations. At the same time, the CAA must be mindful of the effect of its actions and recommendations on the offshore work force and should consult with industry to ensure its demands are realistic and implemented in a way which continues to allow for "maximising economic recovery" as per the Wood Review.[41] We were extremely concerned to hear about how crash survivors wearing safety equipment struggled to evacuate through egress windows after helicopters capsized in the sea. The CAA must set out how it will address that key issue as a matter urgency.

Comparisons with Norway

32. The UK's offshore helicopter safety record is often compared unfavourably with that of Norway. The available statistics indicate that Norway's safety record over the past decade has improved, while that of the UK has declined. In 2012, 56 offshore helicopters were operated in Norway compared with 95 in the UK.[42] Table 3 shows that from 1992 to 2012 the Norwegians suffered one fatal accident compared with six in the UK sector. Although those accident rates may appear to indicate a difference in safety performance the CAA stated that it is "not statistically significant".[43]

Table 3 showing the offshore helicopter accident rates in the UK and Norway, 1992-2012[44]

Trade Unions have highlighted the fact that during the 1990s Norway suffered more accidents than the UK and that that trend reversed only recently. However, it is significant that the CAA review was unable to "identify any material differences in operations, maintenance practices or regulation that could account for this."[45]

33. The RMT and Unite attributed Norway's improved safety record to its regulatory regime. The RMT and Unite believed that the UK has minimum standards compared with 'gold' standards in Norway after 2000.[46] The RMT stated:

    If the 'gold standard' in inspection, operating procedures, training and maintenance in operation at Bristow and in the Norwegian sector had been in place in the UK sector, we believe that four out of the five incidents since February 2009 potentially could have been avoided, including the fatal incidents on 1st April 2009 and 23rd August 2013 which claimed a total of 20 lives.[47]

34. It remains unclear what exactly constitutes 'gold standards' in offshore helicopter safety. Andrew Watterson, Professor of Health Effectiveness at the University of Stirling, identified the introduction of the Work Environment Act 2000 in Norway as an important step towards Norway's current approach to health and safety.[48] He also referred to different cultural factors in the UK and Norway, arguing that the UK examined helicopter accidents in isolation, whereas in Norway helicopter accidents were viewed as the result of wider commercial and environmental factors. He stated that

    with helicopter pilots the Norwegians would not view problems such as 'pilot error' being disconnected from the harsh physical and sometimes economic environment and pressures the pilots need to operate within. Hence Norwegian solutions to certain 'pilot errors' would focus on the environment rather than on 'individual' failures.[49]

35. The small number of accidents makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions from Norway's approach to health and safety and whether such an approach would have prevented the recent accidents in the UK sector. Oil & Gas UK cited a 2010 study by the Norwegian research organisation, SINTEF.[50] The study found no reasons why the UK helicopter crashes between 2000 and 2009 would not have occurred in the Norwegian sector.[51] Helicopter operations in the UK and Norway are similar. EASA applies the same regulations to both the UK and Norway and multinational parent groups own operators in both countries. Mark Swan of the CAA pointed out that the CAA review found that "pilot training, servicing and everything else" in Norway were not significantly different from UK practice.[52]

Mandatory occurrence reporting

36. One important difference between the UK and Norway are their respective reporting cultures. A reportable occurrence is defined as "any incident which endangers or which, if not corrected, would endanger an aircraft, its occupants or any other person."[53] Starting in 1976, the UK has pioneered mandatory occurrence reporting (MOR). MOR is now a requirement under EC Directive 2003/42/EC. That directive was only introduced in Norway in mid-2007. In the UK the MOR scheme ensures information on safety is reported to the CAA, which uses it to develop safety policy.

Table 4: UK and Norwegian Occurrence reporting data between 2003 and 2012[54]

37. Table 4 shows how the number of reported occurrences in Norway rapidly increased after 2008 reaching a level far higher than that in the UK. However, the reason for that increase is not well understood. Mark Swan of the CAA suggested that reporting in the Norwegian fleet is higher than in the UK because the system is newer:

    We believe that is because their reporting culture is much younger than ours. It was introduced only a couple of years ago, and it still has a very good cultural ring to it. We are looking at whether we have missed something there.[55]

The CAA review found that there have been more occurrence reports in the Norwegian sector than in the UK sector since 2008, despite the Norwegian fleet being smaller than the UK fleet. That might reflect a greater occurrence rate, or it might be a function of a more active reporting culture. The CAA believed that the second explanation was more likely.[56]

38. The CAA identified a worrying difference between Norway and the UK in occurrence reporting, but it acknowledged that more work is required to explain it. The CAA must undertake a joint review with its Norwegian counterparts to uncover why more occurrences are reported in Norway, despite its smaller fleet, and publish its findings within 12 months.

37   Oil & Gas UK (HCS0022)  Back

38   The change is planned for implementation on 1 April 2015 Back

39   CAA, (HCS0026) page 3 Back

40   ibid Back

41   Sir Ian Wood, UKCS Maximising Recovery Review: Final Report (February 2014) Back

42   CAA, Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas (February 2014), Annex C, Para 8.3.3 Back

43   ibid Back

44   ibid Back

45   CAA, Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas (February 2014), page 8 Back

46   Unite (HCS0008) para 2.7 Back

47   RMT (HCS00015) para 2.4 Back

48   Professor Andrew Watterson (HCS00024) para 12 Back

49   Ibid, para 13 Back

50   SINTEF describes itself as the largest independent research organisation in Scandinavia Back

51   SINTEF, Helicopter Safety Study 3 (March 2010), para 7.3.6 Back

52   Q130 Back

53   CAA, Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas (February 2014), para 4.4 Back

54   CAA, Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas (February 2014), Annex C, para 8.3.1 Back

55   Q130 Back

56   CAA, Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas (February 2014), Para Back

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Prepared 8 July 2014