A very close call

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An independent commission investigating the crash of Cougar Flight 491 called for it. The provincial New Democrats have argued for it. The Liberals have argued for it. Even the province’s governing Progressive Conservatives are onside with the idea.

Maybe it’s about time it got done.

Thursday, news broke that there had been another close call with a Cougar Sikorsky S-92A helicopter: in the new case, a helicopter had plunged to within 38 feet of the ocean before levelling off, falling 153 metres in 32 seconds as a result of a collection of errors.

The incident cost the pilot his job.

The incident also raised some interesting questions: first of all, flight data recorders on the helicopter were apparently allowed to overwrite the onboard details of the incident, making an investigation of the incident more difficult. Second, while the near-crash happened over two years ago, the first real disclosure of the seriousness of the incident is contained in a Transportation Safety Board report released this week.

All of that is fuel for growing demands that there be an independent safety agency regulating the offshore, an agency separate from the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB).

That’s exactly what Commissioner Robert Wells recommended in his report on the Cougar 491 crash: in recommendation 29, he said that safety issues should be handled by a regulator solely mandated to deal with safety. That’s because the CNLOPB has a variety of responsibilities, many of which include operating not only as a regulator of the offshore, but in many ways as a promoter as well.

It’s interesting to look at the treatment of the July 2011 incident: the regulating CNLOPB, for instance, issued only limited and non-specific information in two incident bulletins, essentially downplaying the seriousness of the near-accident. A board spokesman said it was being careful to not release inaccurate information about what had happened. You would think a regulatory board would be in a perfect position to obtain information outlining exactly what had happened, and to release broad-ranging and accurate information — if it chose to take that route. Apparently, it didn’t.

Last May, when new offshore health and safety regulations were making their way through the House of Assembly, Natural Resources Minister Tom Marshall said both the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia governments were in favour of an independent offshore regulator, and that the only holdup was the federal government. Premier Kathy Dunderdale has said the same thing when questioned in the House — and she’s said it is an issue she has raised repeatedly at the federal level.

Perhaps it’s time for the federal government to explain exactly why it is so comprehensively dragging its feet on ensuring the highest possible standard to protect offshore workers. Is it cost? Is it kowtowing to oil giants? Is it foot-dragging?

Or is it just that, for some reason, workers’ lives on the outside edge of this country matter less?

Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Progressive Conservatives, Transportation Safety Board

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia

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  • Cashin Delaney
    September 19, 2013 - 09:09

    Why did the Ocean Ranger sink. Technology that no one knew how to override. No regulators would have prevented it, only trained, experienced operators could have. Technology provides a series of diminishing returns in helicopter safety also. In fact, when we get safer technology, we just consume the risk. Cars now have forward collision mitigation! Will we consume the risk and pay less attention to the road now? There is a limit to reasonable returns on safety. Every life being so important, safety trumps all, yeah, great sentiments, and nearly everyone works toward this value, but it can't be achieved through political will alone in a free market. There will always be normal catastrophes when dealing with remote site transport. After studying the Challenger disaster, it was found that no one was at fault. NASA had taken acceptable systematic risk mitigation on par with past missions. Remember those who died, who took the risk to go harvest energy. Remember those who died merely sewing pairs of jeans for Joe Fresh. Everyday could be your last when you work in these important, tightly margined productions. Also, a flight voice recorder records 24 hrs, and is designed to retain this period after a crash. Since this incident was not a crash, and the pilots alive, and the helicopter released to fly, why would this audio be an issue? The pilots made reports right after the incident. The flight data was recorded, only voice was missing, as I read it elsewhere, a normal operating procedure. You cannot deny that all the helicoptering people around, and at night, is a product of us going along with unions, being too 'Nish' to accept a boat ride. Now there is no going back, for production sake. We can only go forward and hope to keep up with technology.

  • Corporate Psycho
    September 14, 2013 - 14:25

    Completely agree.