Wells pitches survival suit improvements

Moira Baird
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Commissioner asks Helly Hansen representative if gloves could be better

Commissioner Robert Wells had a few questions Wednesday for Helly Hansen Canada about possible improvements to its survival suits worn by offshore oil workers during helicopter flights.

He wanted to know if lighter, more flexible gloves could be designed for the "crucial" first few minutes while escaping a helicopter submerged in the frigid North Atlantic.

Helly Hansen of Canada operations manager Mark Collins points out some of the features of the offshore survival suit manufactured by his company at the offshore helicopter inquiry Wednesday. - Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

Commissioner Robert Wells had a few questions Wednesday for Helly Hansen Canada about possible improvements to its survival suits worn by offshore oil workers during helicopter flights.

He wanted to know if lighter, more flexible gloves could be designed for the "crucial" first few minutes while escaping a helicopter submerged in the frigid North Atlantic.

Such a glove would also allow a person to release the helicopter seat's four-point harness - something the current suit gloves may hinder.

"A lighter glove that would save your hands for a period of three or four minutes so you'd have better use of them when you actually got straightened away on the surface?"

Wells suggested heavier gloves could be pulled on afterward.

Mark Collins, operations manager for Helly Hansen Canada, said he wasn't aware of a glove that meets those requirements.

"Is it something we are discussing? Absolutely," he said. "We, as a company, have started discussions of glove options, and whether it be a two-layer glove system, a sealed glove system.

"But, obviously, before we would implement that there's some work to be done."

New gloves, he said, would have to be designed so they wouldn't hinder escape from a submerged helicopter.

Earlier this month, Robert Decker, the sole survivor of the March 12 helicopter crash that claimed 17 lives, testified at the inquiry.

Decker said he "lost complete use of hands" after a few minutes in the ocean - making it impossible for him to put on the suit's neoprene gloves or to pull down the face shield.

He was hypothermic after more than an hour in the ocean.

Wells also asked about the amount of water that can get into a survival suit, even in the relatively calm, three-metre seas Decker experienced.

"That water is going to be going over you - you're not just lying there with your face out of the water.

"This was one of the problems Mr. Decker encountered and it wasn't a very stormy day by North Atlantic standards."

Wells suggested more water could get into a survival suit in those conditions than during suit tests in the simulated conditions of a pool.

In July, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers tested the waterproof integrity of Helly Hansen's E-452, the current survival suit worn by most offshore workers in Newfoundland.

Collins said the simulated conditions included wind gusts of 30 km/h to 70 km/h, random waves of one-half to three-quarters of a metre, and continuous rain.

"I'm sure during that testing that they were getting a significant amount of water splashing in their face."

Collins said less water got into the suit in those tests than during international testing, which is much less rigorous.

"It was our understanding the suit had performed very well."

Earlier in the day, Collins was asked about the amount of water that might have been in Decker's survival suit.

Collins saw that survival suit once, but it had been cut into pieces by paramedics following Decker's rescue.

"There was no way of determining the integrity of the suit," he said. "In terms of water ingress, I do not know how much water got into the suit - I only have his comments. And in terms ... of his injuries and core temperature and that, I'm sure that's part of the TSB investigation and is being looked at."

The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the March 12 crash.

Inquiry lawyer John Roil asked why the survival suit is not completely waterproof.

"As with any suit - and you would even see this with custom-made ... diving dry suits - seals against human skin, there is going to be some leakage," replied Collins.

"It would typically be through seals ... face seal and the wrist seals."

Helly Hansen, with its head office in Dartmouth, N.S., landed the contract to supply and maintain 1,200 survival suits worn by offshore workers at the Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose oilfields in April 2006.

The company also renewed a similar contract in Nova Scotia's offshore industry.

The five-year Newfoundland contract started in November 2007, when the company opened its suit maintenance facility in St. John's.

At that time, the main survival suit was the E-452, which meets both the 1999 aviation standard for helicopter transportation suits and the 2005 marine standard for immersion suits.

Collins estimated the retail price of the suit, without features such as the personal locator beacon or light, at somewhere between $3,500 and $4,000. He did not reveal the contract price of the suits, saying it was proprietary information.

The survival suits are inspected and tested after each round trip offshore, and serviced and maintained every eight round trips.

In early 2006, Collins said, the company was also aware that underwater breathing devices would be required on the survival suits - and a sleeve was added to the front of the suit to accommodate it.

The inquiry resumes Monday with testimony from the Offshore Safety and Survival Centre's Robert Rutherford. The Marine Institute centre trains most of the workers in the province's offshore oil industry.

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Helly Hansen, Transportation Safety Board, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Hibernia Marine Institute

Geographic location: North Atlantic, Newfoundland, Dartmouth Terra Nova White Rose Nova Scotia St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Lets move
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    Soon we will hear of people wanting bridges built to the rigs. Choppers not safe, boats not safe. Lets try our cars next. At the rate things are going the wells will all be dry before anything positive is done, so stop worrying about it, get on the chopper and go to work. You are safer once in the chopper than you were in your car getting to the Cougar base in the first place.

  • don
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    Improvements to survival suits would be welcome. However, if that is all the Wells Inquiry is going to recommend, the Government should have saved the taxpayer some money and not created the inquiry. The establishment of three search and rescue helicopters at St. John's is required. The construction of one or more permanent landing platforms at strategic locations offshore where fuel starved or malfunctioning helicopters can go to land and/or refuel is required. The reconfiguration of the helicopter fuselage to allow for easier escape from crashed or submerged helicopters is necessary. More buoyant or watertight survival suits will help keep survivors alive a little longer but without three search and rescue helicopters based in St. John's with one based on an oil rig, the improved survival suits will just keep the bodies afloat until they can be recovered!

  • Lets move
    July 01, 2010 - 19:57

    Soon we will hear of people wanting bridges built to the rigs. Choppers not safe, boats not safe. Lets try our cars next. At the rate things are going the wells will all be dry before anything positive is done, so stop worrying about it, get on the chopper and go to work. You are safer once in the chopper than you were in your car getting to the Cougar base in the first place.

  • don
    July 01, 2010 - 19:54

    Improvements to survival suits would be welcome. However, if that is all the Wells Inquiry is going to recommend, the Government should have saved the taxpayer some money and not created the inquiry. The establishment of three search and rescue helicopters at St. John's is required. The construction of one or more permanent landing platforms at strategic locations offshore where fuel starved or malfunctioning helicopters can go to land and/or refuel is required. The reconfiguration of the helicopter fuselage to allow for easier escape from crashed or submerged helicopters is necessary. More buoyant or watertight survival suits will help keep survivors alive a little longer but without three search and rescue helicopters based in St. John's with one based on an oil rig, the improved survival suits will just keep the bodies afloat until they can be recovered!