The Cougar helicopter ramp in St. John's — Telegram file photo
According to worker representatives who spoke with The Telegram Thursday, the majority of offshore workers would not want to take night flights, despite the addition of Cougar Helicopters’ search and rescue service and other offerings.
“That’s all great, and it’s necessary, and we’re glad that it’s done, but the fact is they’re missing the point.
“There’s a greater chance of fatalities at night than there is in the day when a helicopter ditches,” said Brian Murphy, an offshore worker who also represents other workers, as a union leader with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, Local 2121.
The crash of Cougar Flight 491 was a rare, worst-case scenario, considered unlikely to occur.
“So the likeihood (argument) doesn’t sit with me whatsoever,” Murphy said.
That crash offshore Newfoundland, on the morning of March 12, 2009, claimed the lives of 17 people and ultimately led to a halt on night flights and the current discussion of offshore helicopter safety.
“When the operators first indicated to the workforce that they were going to do this, they were going to apply (to suggest a return to night flights) ... the workers generated a petition and within 10 days — and you’ve got to understand that we have three-week rotations — within 10 days they had 300 names of workers who did not agree with going back to night flights,” Murphy said.
The petitions continue to be circulated.
“You’re getting unionized (workers signing), non-union — you’re getting supervis(ors). One guy came to me and he said, ‘I was a pallbearer (for a worker) on 491,’ and he came to me and he said, ‘I don’t want to do that again.’”
Rejecting pro-night flight arguments
Murphy said representatives for various oil companies have said flights to and from offshore installations are being completed at night in other parts of the world, including off Norway.
Yet, even in Norway, transport flights are not conducted at night if they can be scheduled in the day. “The reason why they don’t is the workers are not comfortable with it,” Murphy said, suggesting this is a case wherein Newfoundland and Labrador could take the lead in addressing a safety concern in the offshore, by banning helicopter flights at night.
The union rep also tackled statements made by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers on Wednesday, in favour of the CNLOPB allowing night flights to resume — specifically, that workers will benefit from the ability to easily clear flight backlogs caused by poor weather or allow workers to quickly return home in the case of the death of a loved one or a family emergency.
“When people get held over, it’s unfortunate and it’s irritating. I’ve been held over,” Murphy said. “There’s nothing else to say about that — it is irritating. But you know, we live with it. We deal with it.”
The final report of the Hebron Public Review Commission noted weather data and the experience of current operators has the Hebron project leaders expecting to operate transport flights five days a week, 52 weeks a year, with 70 to 75 per cent of those flights able to go on the scheduled date of departure.
Call for more day flights
“For most people, the great majority of people that I know ... this is about never flying at night again. Don’t ask me. I’m not doing it,” said Sheldon Peddle, an occupational health and safety committee representative on the Hibernia platform.
Peddle said he approved of the initiative Cougar Helicopters has taken in adding to pilot and staff training, as explained in detail in the operators’ filing with the offshore regulator.
“I’m sure they’re doing a bang-up job with it,” he said.
He also acknowledged some workers might welcome night flights, particularly non-unionized workers on drill rigs being used for exploratory wells, who are typically given the lowest priority for flights out.
However, the simple addition of more flights during the day could just as easily change those opinions, he said.
He questioned why operators would not simply introduce more daytime flights if there is a problem getting workers to and from the offshore area.
“Everyone wants to get off this platform, or whatever platform they’re on, when it’s time to go home, but not at the expense of their safety,” Peddle said.
“I think everybody has to put in context where the (latest) report came from,” he added, making it clear he does not feel there was any lying by the offshore operators in their report, but there were assertions he would disagree with.
Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, said the operators’ report to the CNLOPB reads like “a technical, risk-mitigation report,” akin to something that might be produced by an insurance company.
The argument being made over whether or not to allow night flights is an example of the two different approaches to work offshore, she said.
The first is a risk-management approach, the operators’ “as low as reasonably practicable” measure of risk. The second option, she said, is an occupational health policy wherein actions found to be increasing the risk to a worker’s health and safety are, first and foremost, eliminated whenever possible.
Payne said she feels the decision on whether or not to allow a return to night flights will be the most important test for the CNLOPB since the crash of Cougar 491.
Meanwhile, the imitation of a rollover of a helicopter, in water at night, “hasn’t been brought in” as part of worker training, Peddle confirmed.
While Cougar Helicopter pilots are being trained and tested in nighttime conditions, workers are not yet being exposed to the scenario of a nighttime ditching as part of their training experience.
Peddle said changes to the worker training program are being considered.