Safety & Training
Cougar crash renews calls for separate safety agency
March 11, 2010 By The Canadian Press
March 11, 2010, St. John's, N.L. - Keith Kenny didn't worry too much when he climbed aboard the helicopter that would shuttle him out to his job on one of Newfoundland's offshore installations.
He would settle into the back of the Sikorsky S-92 and fall asleep for the roughly two-hour ride as he had many times for the last several years.
But when one of the helicopters crashed a year ago killing 17 people, Kenny's sense of ease quickly evaporated while attention turned to the safety of the aircraft flying workers to the platforms and the regime that oversees the lucrative industry.
In particular, observers, experts and employees said the crash of Cougar Flight 491 highlighted the need for a separate safety agency to replace an offshore regulator that has the competing tasks of promoting the industry and protecting workers.
Kenny, who lost friends and his niece in the crash last March 12, argues that Newfoundland's offshore regulator is in a clear conflict and might not be able to both advocate on behalf of the industry while ensuring worker safety.
"Things have to change,'' the 45-year-old galley steward said from his home in Fermeuse, one of the small communities along the Avalon Peninsula's eastern coast that lost nine people in the accident.
"Are they protecting the companies more than they are the workers? Who knows, but hopefully now everyone will do right.''
The difficult question is a central one being asked about the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, the arms-length regulator that has both safety and resource management as two of its four mandates.
Critics have voiced concerns before about the dual — and, they suggest, duelling — roles the board plays in regulating the industry.
But those questions came into sharper focus at an inquiry called in the wake of the crash of the S-92, which went down suddenly after experiencing mechanical problems on its way to the offshore.
The province's federation of labour testified at the inquiry led by Robert Wells that there should be a separate agency dealing strictly with worker safety.
"We must understand the competing interests of safety and production or profit and put in place the correct structures,'' federation president Lana Payne said at the inquiry.
"What we have in the offshore is not much better than self-regulation.''
The former leader of the union representing hundreds of offshore oil workers echoed the sentiment, saying there have been calls for an overhaul of the regulatory framework since the Ocean Ranger drilling rig went down in 1982, killing all 84 people aboard.
"The board is the promoter and cheerleader of the industry in developing the offshore while at the same time they're also protecting the safety of the people — that's certainly a conflict,'' said Sheldon Peddle of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union.
"There may be some things that aren't done to the fullest on the safety side so as not to impact the development offshore.''
Sean Kelly, a spokesman with the C-NLOPB, said the board won't comment on the matter while Wells was still working on his report.
But experts in the area say there appears to be a move by some nations involved in the offshore to separate the two responsibilities into different bodies.
Magne Ognedal, director of the Petroleum Safety Authority in Norway, said the Norwegian government decided in 2004 to split safety and resource management into different agencies.
As head of the safety group, he oversees risk issues, accident prevention and safety concerns in the work environment.
"It was to avoid possible conflict between resource management and safety issues,'' he said from Stavanger, Norway. "The roles have been much clearer and the safety part of it all stands out with better authority …
"We don't have to think about possible consequences for resource management.''
Other big players in the offshore, including the United Kingdom and Australia, have also divided the areas.
Critics of the current Canadian framework have accused the petroleum board of moving slowly in forcing industry to improve safety.
Randell Earle, the lawyer for the unionized offshore workers, said at the inquiry that the board "dropped the ball'' in communicating to employees through their occupational health and safety committees or making improvements to safety devices, such as underwater breathing devices.
It took nine years to introduce underwater breathing devices offshore.
He said board safety specialists failed to find a way to implement a recommendation of the Ocean Ranger inquiry report that required a full-time, dedicated search and rescue helicopter near the offshore oilfields.
The board was also accused of failing to act promptly in fixing problems with workers' survival suits.
The board's chief safety officer, Howard Pike, testified that the board had heard complaints about the suits before the crash but wasn't able to make any headway with the problem.
Jack Harris, an NDP MP with standing at the inquiry, said commission counsel are visiting the U.K. and other jurisdictions to look into the issue of whether to recommend a separation of the responsibilities.
"A different structure would allow a focus strictly on safety,'' he said. "You do need something totally separate on the safety side.''
Wells has already recommended that a helicopter be on standby to respond to an emergency within 20 minutes. He has also called for a temporary ban on night flights offshore until a search-and-rescue
helicopter is equipped to carry out rescues after dark.
The board has accepted those recommendations.
Harold Mullowney, whose brother Derek was killed, said he's encouraged by those actions. But he cautions that there is much to be done to increase safety in a valued, but risky industry that employs about 3,400 people in Newfoundland on and offshore.
"It's hard to serve two masters — you have to be there for one or the other, you can't do both,'' he said of the board.
"We say there's costs (to safety), but I don't buy that. If you're into a multibillion-dollar business, you don't treat humans as if they were machinery. You treat them as human beings.''