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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Offshore Pax Safety

By Joy Finnegan

On Nov. 17, 2010, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) received the “Report of the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry.” The report was also released to the public at that time. The C-NLOPB commissioned the inquiry to examine matters directly related to helicopter passenger safety for workers in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore area.

The study differs from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s (TSB) goal of finding probable cause. As stated in the report: “The purpose of this Inquiry is to determine what improvements can be made … so the risks of helicopter transportation of offshore workers are as low as is reasonably practicable…” and was spurred into existence by the Cougar Helicopter S-92A crash in March 2009. That accident left 17 people dead, including the pilot and co-pilot. One person survived not only the crash, but the frigid North Atlantic seas as well and was rescued.

The mandate of the commissioner was to investigate and report on matters relating to the safety of offshore workers in the context of areas such as escape, evacuation and rescue procedures while traveling via helicopter to offshore rigs. This report did not look at any issues related to the airworthiness of the aircraft, flight crew training or flight procedures. From that perspective, this report is refreshing. It looks at the safety of the passengers.

One of the amazing opportunities in studying this accident, among so many others, is that there was a survivor who was later able to recount his observations about the event. I’m certain that this gentleman’s statement was invaluable to the inquiry since their focus was on passenger safety. I can only imagine how important the information he brought to light has been for both this inquiry and the TSB’s. He is to be honored for his willingness to assist these investigations.

The next important statement from the report is that “helicopter transportation is the only practical method of conveying passengers to and from offshore installations.” It’s not that readers of Rotor & Wing won’t know that, but people from all walks of life may read this report and those not familiar with the offshore realm might wonder why helicopters are used in lieu of other methods of transport. So it was important for this report to make that statement. In effect, that statement shows how imperative it is to improve the safety of passengers utilizing this method of transport, since it is the “only practical method.”

The inquiry determined the issues to examine and subdivided them in to overarching issues and specific issues. Some of the overarching issues were directly related to the C-NLOPB’s involvement in regulating the offshore industry, for example: “Should there be a degree of separation within the C-NLOPB between offshore helicopter regulation and other offshore industry regulation?”

But others were more directly related to helicopter operations, for example: “What is the role of organizational safety culture in offshore helicopter transport?”

Some of the more specific issues examined were things like “Can helicopter transport safety be affected by the capacity of the helicopter transport fleet?” and “What are the appropriate standards of offshore helicopter safety training to ensure that the risk to passengers is as low as is reasonably practicable both during training and helicopter transport?”

The training question is a key component to survivability. Passenger training can be vitally important if and when a helicopter crashes or ditches in the ocean. The ideal sequence of events that would happen in the event of a water ditching would be for the passengers to remain calm, fight disorientation, release their seat belt (all while the helicopter may be tipping upside down and filling with cold water, exiting the helicopter and swimming to the surface. Once on the surface, even in an immersion suit, staying alive while awaiting rescue will be another challenge.

The report looked at survival suits and their usage. If a helicopter ditches, survival may well depend on the suit. The report identified that many suits don’t have a neck seal but a face seal, which may allow water leakage around the face seal leading to increased risk of hypothermia. This report notes that the survivor of the S-92 crash was wearing a suit without a neck seal and stated that there was significant leakage into the suit. He was in the water for an hour and a half and his body temperature was about 820F at the time of rescue, which is considered severe hypothermia. I might add again, it is miraculous that he survived.

The report goes on to make 29 recommendations. Some address the specific area of operation of Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador. But many of the recommendations are wide reaching and can be helpful to any operation looking to improve the safety and survivability of their passengers. A sampling of the recommendations includes the need to develop a protocol whereby a first-response helicopter would be dispatched to accompany a transport helicopter who has indicated a malfunction (even if it doesn’t constitute an immediate emergency) to its destination; passenger briefings before each flight; safety training goals be established; risk management assessments; and evaluation of safety culture.

I suggest any operator, not just those operating over water, could benefit from reading this report.

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