Helicopter Safety (North Sea)
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
24 October 2017
Motion debated :
That the Parliament understands that the Civil Aviation Authority has lifted the ban on the use of Superpuma H225LP and AS332L2 helicopters in the UK despite continuing concerns over the safety of these helicopters among offshore workers; further understands that Airbus, the manufacturer of Superpuma helicopters, has carried out a survey of North Sea workers and aircrew in order to establish their attitudes towards helicopter safety; notes the finding that 62% of respondents would be unlikely to fly in a Superpuma helicopter, given a choice; further notes that 44% of respondents were unaware of work done to improve safety since the Superpuma crash in April 2016, including increased monitoring and inspection measures and more regular replacement of gearbox components; recognises that Unite the Union has launched a petition opposing the reintroduction of the Superpuma helicopters, signed by thousands of offshore workers in the North East Scotland parliamentary region and across the country, who remain concerned about their safety and reputation, and notes calls for flights in these Superpuma helicopters to not resume.
I am delighted to welcome to the public gallery members of Unite the union, representatives of Airbus and others who have stayed for the debate, and I thank colleagues across parties for their support. Tonight’s debate gives us an opportunity to put on the record the views of offshore workers on an issue that is of the utmost importance to them and their families.
Offshore oil and gas workers earn their living in a hazardous industry that operates in a hazardous environment.
Drilling rigs and production platforms are tough places to work the world over, and nowhere more so than in the waters that are off our coasts.
However, offshore safety is not just about the place of work, which is a chemical processing plant that is many miles from dry land and a long way from the nearest hospital.
It is also about the journey to work, which carries risks of its own. Most people travel to work each day by train, bus, bike or car.
Oil workers make a journey, too. They travel every month to the heliport in Aberdeen, then make a journey by helicopter to a place where they work long shifts on successive days for, often, three weeks at a time.
Sometimes, they fly first from Aberdeen to Shetland, then to an offshore installation, and they do the same journey in reverse when coming home. That is a lot of hours in mid-air.
I have travelled offshore a number of times in the past 30 years and it is not the same as taking the bus. A passenger on a bus does not need to be trained in advance on how to get out if things go wrong.
He or she does not need a survival suit or the other gear that is required to stay afloat and to keep breathing in the event of an accident, and they do not have to go through the process of kitting up twice in the same journey when the trip involves changing from one vehicle to another halfway there.
It is important to understand what the journey is like and what that implies for workforce safety. Formal certification of safety on its own is not enough.
Taking a chopper to work in the North Sea is not the same as joyriding at an air show on a summer’s afternoon. The journey is also about the gear, the safety procedures, the unpredictable flying conditions and the hazardous environment.
When workers have to deal with all that before they get to work, they need the certification, but they also need to feel that the aircraft that they are travelling on is fit for purpose.
That is what is at issue this evening, because Super Puma helicopters do not feel safe to many of those who might be asked to step on board. Unite the union has collected thousands of signatures that confirm that that is the view of its offshore members, some of whom are here.
Airbus, which makes Super Pumas, has done its own survey. It found that 62 per cent of helicopter crew and passengers in the North Sea would not fly in Super Pumas, given the choice. It also found that 44 per cent were unaware of the efforts that Airbus had made to address the issues that caused Super Pumas to be grounded in the first place.
Those efforts are significant. Airbus has a good deal of professional engineering expertise, and it has applied all its technology and expertise to addressing the critical issues. It has briefed MSPs accordingly.
The facts of the matter are not in dispute—they have been established by national and international civil aviation regulators.
The Super Puma 225 that crashed in Norway last year did so because a crack that developed in the gearbox led to catastrophic failure, and the helicopter dropped out of the sky. Thirteen passengers and crew died as a result.
Airbus has made public what it believes caused the crack to develop where it did, and it has put mitigation measures in place.
For example, two different companies previously supplied versions of the part that Airbus believes was at the heart of the gearbox failure.
In the future, Airbus will use only one version from one supplier. Mechanisms for detecting faults or failures have been improved, and maintenance rules and procedures have been tightened up.
All those steps are welcome, but they do not guarantee that such faults or failures will never happen again, which is why so many people remain unconvinced.
It is important to know how and why a crack develops, but it is also important to know how long it takes before that becomes critical and how much time there is to take action to deal with it.
It is right to remove the less safe of two alternative components from the supply chain, but we also need to know whether there are other parts of the aircraft where safety-critical components are supplied by different companies and what is being done about them.
It is interesting to know that Airbus could reduce the number of seats and improve the internal cabin space in the 225, but there is no certainty that that will happen if helicopter operating companies cannot make a profit when flying with fewer passengers.
There are wider questions, which are not just for Airbus. In 2014, my friend and former colleague as the Aberdeen North MP, Frank Doran, won the support of the Transport Committee at Westminster for a public inquiry into helicopter safety in the North Sea, but that call was rejected by the Tory transport secretary of the day.
The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald): Lewis Macdonald will appreciate that, given my ministerial office, I cannot make a speech in the debate. However, as the issue affects a number of my constituents, I ask him whether he agrees that, as well as communication with the workforce, which is essential, wider communication is required with the families of the workforce and with the communities—particularly those in Dyce and Bridge of Don—where there are regular helicopter flights over built-up areas, whose members often have concerns about what the impact of helicopter safety might be on their communities.
Mark McDonald makes a good point.
A lot of this is to do with communication—in a sense, it is the central point.
It is not only about finding technical solutions to technical problems but about the communication with the workforce, their families and the wider community—hence the call that was made three years ago for a public inquiry into helicopter safety that would look not only at the technical standards but at the related communications.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and other unions in the offshore co-ordinating group have this week repeated the call for a public inquiry. When the minister responds to the debate, I will be interested to hear the Scottish Government’s view on that, although I recognise that the responsibility lies elsewhere.
Offshore trade unions have argued that helicopter transport needs to be on the agenda of the oil industry’s regulators—the Oil and Gas Authority and the Health and Safety Executive—as well as the agenda of the Civil Aviation Authority.
That makes the same point that this is not just about technical standards but about workforce engagement and confidence, and the issue is for the whole industry.
The partnership of the workforce, unions and regulators must be strengthened, not weakened, if the North Sea is to have a safe and successful future, and that is why the views of the workforce must be heeded by all concerned.
Only by putting the workforce at the centre can we have the oil and gas industry that we need and which operates to the standards that those who work in it deserve.