Helicopter Operation Safety Review: Problems & Effectiveness
In February 2014, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) published a safety review of offshore helicopter operations, which examined the risks of supporting the oil and gas industry in the North Sea. The review, undertaken in conjunction with the Norwegian CAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), listed 32 actions and 29 recommendations that aimed to increase the safety of offshore helicopter flights.
Earlier this year, the CAA published a report highlighting the progress of the proposed safety measures and examining the impact these measures have had on the offshore oil and gas sector. Although the report states that progress has been made on all actions and most recommendations, not all of the proposed measures have made smooth transitions into the offshore oil and gas industry.
One of the actions that received the most publicity at the time the review was published centred around the body size of helicopter passengers. The CAA's safety review stated that starting April 1, helicopter operators would not be allowed to carry passengers who could not fit through push-out window exits. The thinking behind this measure was that passengers who cannot fit through push-out windows not only face greater risks themselves, they also increase the risks faced by their fellow passengers. As the progress report identifies however, this particular measure posed some problems.
The report found that "changing window size is a significant design issue and would take some time to be introduced and might prove impractical for existing helicopters". As a result, this particular action could have potentially meant that larger members of the offshore workforce would not have been able to be carried in helicopters with small windows, which might mean redundancies. In response to this issue, The CAA stated in its progress report that "this was not the intention" and the organization has since worked with Step Change, helicopter operators and experts at Robert Gordon University to develop a solution.
A new minimum width measurement, which corresponds to passenger chest depth, and diagonal measurement, which corresponds to shoulder width, has now been established for push-out windows. As a result of the CAA's revisions, "tens of thousands of offshore workers have had their shoulder width measured", according to a report from the BBC. As part of the revision, passengers that cannot not fit through push-out windows under the new measurements are required to sit adjacent to larger exits. Evidence from an RGU study indicates that the revised proportion of passengers needing to be seated next to a larger exit is compatible with the availability of these seats. As a result, the CAA is confident that no offshore workers will lose their job due to the body-to-window-size action.
Another element of the safety review that proved tricky to impose centered on night operations to helidecks. Under the initial safety review the CAA identified risks around these types of operations, which only resulted in them being banned on small vessels. The CAA is currently pushing to extend the night prohibition to other types of floating facility, such as FPSO vessels, but it is unclear if this rule will go ahead.
The CAA's plan to commission a report to review offshore communication, handling and flight monitoring procedures from an air traffic control perspective, and act on its outcomes, was also delayed due to "the complexities of the actions required", according to the progress review, as was the organization's plan to amend its examiner assessment protocols to require specific candidate performance indicators that would make trends in common failings visible for proactive attention.
The CAA's recommendation to make safety and survival training a requirement for offshore passengers, which has a 2Q 2016 delivery date, is far from being implemented as well. This recommendation is only "under consideration, pending discussion with industry and participating authorities", according to the CAA's latest progress report. A recommendation that the EASA establishes a forum for discussion for best practice and developments on Vibration Health Monitoring (VHM) was also rejected outright, after it was discovered that several groups already exist to address this issue and the EASA claimed that any new forum would be best sponsored by manufacturers and helicopter operators.
Although the CAA's latest progress report shows that a variety of safety review measures posed a range of unique problems, the fact remains that the organization managed to advance the vast majority of its 61 proposed safety measures in the oil and gas industry, which can only be good news for oil and gas workers that regularly rely on offshore helicopter operations.
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