How is equipment tested?

Moira Baird
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Inquiry Inquiry commissioner checking on jurisdiction regarding equipment safety

The lawyer for the families of the pilots of Cougar Helicopter Flight 491 have raised questions Wednesday about the safety equipment used by helicopter pilots flying offshore.

Kate O'Brien wants to know how equipment - such as immersion suits and helmets - is tested and certified for use by pilots in the offshore oil industry.

Howard Pike, chief safety officer with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, prepares to testify at the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry in St. John's Wednesday. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

The lawyer for the families of the pilots of Cougar Helicopter Flight 491 have raised questions Wednesday about the safety equipment used by helicopter pilots flying offshore.

Kate O'Brien wants to know how equipment - such as immersion suits and helmets - is tested and certified for use by pilots in the offshore oil industry.

So far, she said, no witness at the Wells Inquiry into offshore helicopter safety has been able to provide that information.

On Wednesday, Howard Pike, the chief safety officer of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB), said Transport Canada is the lead regulator for helicopter operations in the offshore oil industry.

That didn't satisfy O'Brien.

"I'm hoping that the CNLOPB will find a way, or this commission of inquiry will find a way, to exercise some clout to ensure ... that kind of rigour is put into the system," she told reporters.

O'Brien said she was pleased to hear inquiry commissioner Robert Wells say he'll see if he has any jurisdiction to look into this further.

The Wells Inquiry was established following the March 12, 2009, helicopter crash that killed 15 offshore workers and two pilots. One man survived.

O'Brien said the CNLOPB requires oil companies to use survival suits for offshore workers that exceed regulatory standards.

They must also demonstrate those suits protect workers from hypothermia - as was the case following a June 2009 request by the board. It resulted in a series of tests last summer in simulated ocean conditions.

O'Brien wants the same standards and testing for immersion suits worn by pilots.

"Those suits might be fine - I don't know," she told reporters. "Nobody has done the testing yet in terms of any evidence I've seen, and I really think that that testing should be done."

O'Brien asked if Pike could make a similar request to test helicopter pilot suits.

"That would certainly be pushing our boundary in what I see is our jurisdiction, so I'd have to review that one with my (legal) counsel in order to see whether we could do anything," he said. "But, on the surface, I'd have to say no."

O'Brien replied, "It's not just for the safety of the pilots, though I think that's very important, too, ... but it's also important for the rest of the workers." "The safety of one is important to all."

Cougar Helicopters flies offshore workers to and from the oilfields off Newfoundland and Labrador.

When Cougar executives testified earlier this month, O'Brien said, she was surprised to learn the company's pilots are not required to wear helmets.

Rick Burt, general manager of Cougar, said some pilots wear them, others do not.

"Mr. Burt conceded that it's safer to wear a helmet than to not wear a helmet, but yet he had some concerns as to whether helmets might be heavy, uncomfortable," O'Brien said.

Burt also said the company didn't do a formal risk assessment on helmets, though he acknowledged it would be a good idea.

"We really need someone to look into this and ensure that ... companies that are so critical such as Cougar to the safety of everyone who travels offshore are actually practising what they're preaching," O'Brien said.

Pike also outlined the CNLOPB's database for recording helicopter incidents - citing examples to show how the board deals with those incidents and carries out audits of helicopter operations.

The database contains 31 helicopter incidents dating to 1988.

On Oct. 11, 2009, there was a report of a weight distribution problem during a flight to the Hibernia platform.

As the helicopter was about to land at the platform, passengers were asked to get out of their seats and move forward to balance weight in the cargo hold.

That incident is under review by the CNLOPB.

"We wanted a closer look at the root cause ... so it's still being discussed," Pike said.

Another incident occurred Dec. 16, 2001, at the Terra Nova oilfield - triggering a safety audit of helicopter operations.

"A worker was transported within the field without a flight suit," Pike said.

Flight suits - also known as survival suits - are required to be worn by all passengers during helicopter flights offshore. Instead, the employee was wearing workclothes and a red jacket.

The passenger travelled from the diving support ship Kommander 2000 to the drill rig Henry Goodrich within the Terra Nova oilfield.

The flight lasted five minutes or less.

"The pilot made a judgment call that the risk of flying the passenger to the Henry Goodrich was less than the risk of landing back on the Kommander," Pike said. "In hindsight, this was not the decision that should have been made."

He also said the pilot should not have had to make such a judgment call.

"He shouldn't have been put in that position."

Pike said changes were made to the passenger list for that flight, resulting in one person not having a survival suit.

He said Petro-Canada (now known as Suncor Energy), which operates the Terra Nova field, made its existing policy clearer on the use of survival suits during all flights.

The incident was investigated and closed. In 2002, the board audited Petro-Canada on its helicopter operations offshore.

The inquiry resumes today with the CNLOPB.

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Wells Inquiry, Transport Canada Petro-Canada Hibernia Suncor Energy

Geographic location: Terra Nova, Newfoundland and Labrador

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