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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Safety Through Cooperation

By Pat Gray

A few weeks ago, I started thinking about how to tie a column about offshore helicopter support into the Offshore Technology Conference, which is being held May 2–5 in Houston. If you have never been to an OTC, it would be an understatement to say it is mind-boggling. This is where all the oil field equipment manufactures bring their wares to be viewed by the major energy and drilling companies.

The displays cover about 35 acres of space near downtown Houston, including everything from submarines to deepwater drilling rigs and beyond. Just one example—there are drilling rigs that can float on more than 10,000 feet of water and pierce the ocean bottom within inches of the programmed entry point. It also serves as a forum for economic and safety issues within the industry. But I digress.

The late Robert Suggs came along in the 1940s and proved to the oil industry that helicopters were a viable alternative to swamp buggies and boats for transportation on and off the coast of Louisiana. He left a legacy for his company and others to follow in how to do business with the oil giants. Over the years, hundreds and hundreds of helicopters have provided support for everything from transporting passengers to and from rigs, moving cargo, medical emergencies, pipeline inspection, pre-hurricane evacuation, flights to maintain and inspect production equipment, oil exploration—almost any reasonable request for support. But a price was being paid in terms of accidents and loss of life.

Things came to a head in 1978 when a large helicopter changing out a drilling crew at an offshore rig was hit by a cargo crane, resulting in the deaths of 19 people. A key member of the current OTC, the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) and its safety committee, sent out letters to offshore helicopter operators asking for a meeting to discuss safety issues to mitigate the helicopter accident rate. The meeting took place in Houston on Feb. 8, 1978. Some of the attendees and respective companies were Tenneco Oil, Shell, Gulf Oil, Mobil, Chevron and Marlin Drilling Co. On the helicopter side were Tenneco Inc., Evergreen Helicopters, Air Logistics, Houston Helicopters, Offshore Helicopters and Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI).

The fallout from the meeting was the formation of the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference (HSAC). Lynn Clough, who managed a fleet of Part 91 offshore helicopters, was elected as the first chairman and he remained in the position for the first 13 years of its life. Clough was convinced that the surest road to mitigation of immediate safety problems was “Safety through Cooperation” which has been the HSAC motto throughout its history. Since Clough’s tenure, there have been five different chairmen, all endowed with the same driving desire to promote safe offshore helicopter operations.

A necessary way to do this has been by maintaining a close working relationship with many of the companies that make up the OTC. The core membership is made up of 17 energy companies and nine helicopter companies. The HSAC serves as a forum for all these groups to come forward and participate, through committee work, by pointing out areas of danger found through daily flight/customer interaction. Once consensus is reached, recommended procedures are developed that result in solutions that are agreeable to all parties.

HSAC will then publish a bulletin called a “Recommended Procedure” (RP) that is sent to all participants to be placed in their permanent files. To name a few: Helicopter/Crane Operations, Helideck Markings, Underwater Escape Training, Helideck Hazard Warnings, Gas Venting Procedures and Helicopter/Tanker Operations. Each of these RPs has a distinctive file number and remains in effect until cancelled by agreement. There are currently 34 RPs in effect for Gulf of Mexico operations, including aerial pipeline inspection, which may be offshore or on land. Many of these RPs are integrated into the training manuals and operating procedures of both the oil and the helicopter companies. They have found their way to the North Sea, Mid-East and Africa, especially in the area of helideck markings and takeoff and landing operations.

Bidding on transport contracts from the major oil companies is fierce business here in the Gulf. It is truly amazing that these competitors can meet every three months or so with their customers and business rivals and pound out safety procedures in an aura of good fellowship and respect for one another.

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