Even for the kind of robust individuals who choose to earn their living in the unforgiving environment of offshore energy exploitation, the events of the first half of this year were shocking.

The accidents to two Eurocopter EC225 Super Pumas in the North Sea and a Sikorsky S-92 off Canada were worrying enough, but the unexpected issues thrown up by the prolonged rescue operation following the one non-fatal crash were even less reassuring.

All of this comes against a background of endless commercial pressure on the exploration companies, brutal competition between the helicopter operators, and a tough jobs market.

So it comes as no surprise that tensions have sometimes been running high between industry, unions and regulators in the North Sea.

As ever, the human instinct is to look for patterns in the accidents and to identify systemic weaknesses. Regrettably too the temptation to apportion blame is never far away and the risk of mixing safety management with labour relations questions is ever present.

But the evidence to date is that what commonality there was related mainly to helicopters’ inherent design vulnerabilities and the unforgiving nature of offshore operations. Battling those factors is a permanent struggle that has no prospect of being won in the near-term and there is precious little sign that anyone is falling down on the job.

Indeed there is much to praise in the reaction of all North Sea parties to this year’s deeply tragic events.

Efficient recovery operations led to remarkably rapid and informative interim reports followed by urgent regulatory action; pilots and offshore workers displayed a sanguine attitude to risk that those of a more deskbound persuasion might note with a degree of awe; and the offshore industry was quick to create a helicopter task force that has achieved real results in focusing the efforts of all concerned on possible improvements.

Equally there is much to be done. Upgraded analysis software for existing health and usage monitoring systems and the new multilateration surveillance system need to be fielded as soon as humanly possible. New helideck lighting is proven and should be deployed.

At the same time distracting issues relating to locator beacons that arose from the first accident need to be put to bed urgently so they stop wasting time and energy.
But everyone needs to recognise that recriminations contribute little to offshore safety.

Source: Flight International