Fresh calls for public inquiry into North Sea helicopter safety

15 July 2019, 17:10 | Updated: 15 July 2019, 17:12

Oil Rig North Sea

A union has stepped up its calls for a public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety, after a watchdog highlighted fatigue concerns in a report.

The Air Accidents Investigation Board (AAIB) found that tiredness among ground staff may have contributed to a "near miss" at Aberdeen Airport involving an Airbus 175 helicopter.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union is calling on the Scottish Government to launch a public inquiry into safety standards for those working in the North Sea.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: "Following on from the images of a damaged tail rotor on a 175, the findings of fatigue and a lack of care for engineers working on the offshore helicopter fleet is deeply disturbing for offshore workers and their families.

"The Government's abject failure to take this problem seriously over the last decade is another slap in the face for offshore workers who keep our economy ticking over but are simply expected to get on with travelling in helicopters that are subject to dangerous levels of commercial pressure.

"This 'out of sight, out of mind' approach to the safety of offshore workers must be faced down and an independent public inquiry launched into the safety of offshore helicopters, including the commercial pressures that this latest safety investigation has again flagged up.

"RMT will be stepping up the pressure on government and safety agencies for that inquiry this week."

The incident referred to by the union - which took place on July 10 2018 - was investigated by the AAIB and detailed in its latest report.

It found that, during approach to land, the landing gear appeared to deploy normally, but at touchdown it collapsed due to a engineering failure.

Passengers were then disembarked while the helicopter was in a low hover, because of its low fuel state.

The report said the aircraft was then landed safely, using sandbags to support the fuselage.

An investigation found that part of the helicopter's frame replacement had not been connected properly during repair works.

The review also identified that the engineer tasked with the replacement works had not completed the task before.

In addition, they had only taken two rest days over the preceding 31-day period.

This had not been identified by the shift managers and contravened the company's fatigue management procedures.

AAIB said it is possible that these factors contributed to the failure of the engineer.

The helicopter suffered some minor damage.

The Scottish Government's Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, Paul Wheelhouse, said: "The offshore workforce's concerns on helicopter safety are a shared priority of the highest order.

"While we have no legal or regulatory powers in respect of aviation safety and the power to call a public inquiry rests with the UK government, we have made clear to our industry partners that nothing is more important than ensuring the safety of those who work offshore.

"We are very sympathetic to the underlying concerns of the offshore workforce and have raised specific issues with employers on their behalf. However, we do not believe a public inquiry into helicopter safety would, at this time, add to the significant streams of work being undertaken by the Civil Aviation Authority, unions, operators and other stakeholders in developing and implementing a range of safety measures to address concerns that have been raised.

"We also recognise that stakeholders, such as the Oil and Gas Authority, Step Change for Safety and Oil and Gas UK, continue to work to further encourage improvements in helicopter safety. This is an issue that I have also raised at the Oil and Gas Industry Leadership Group that I co-chair, and will continue to engage with all stakeholders - including helicopter operators - on the matter, given the issue's importance to the sustainability of offshore operations too.

"Although the regulation of aviation safety, including offshore helicopter flights, is a matter currently reserved to UK Ministers under the Scotland Act 1998, for our part we believe there should be a collaborative approach to health and safety offshore and we will continue to work with partners, including UK-wide regulators and trade unions, to achieve this."