Helitech 2016: ​Stretching Safety too Far – a Withering Safety Culture

Helitech 2016: ​Stretching Safety too Far – a Withering Safety Culture

11-Oct-2016 Source: Allan Blake

The 66 page Statoil Report into helicopter safety following the Norwegian H225 accident in April 2016 makes some telling comments on the retrenchment by oil and gas operators and the impact on helicopter operators. The investigation team of eight internal Statoil staff and one external member of the Norwegian military met with and interviewed 80 people.  The Report accepts that:
It is the responsibility of the Norwegian Accident Investigation Board … to determine the cause of the accident. Statoil’s investigation team has not examined the sequence of events surrounding the loss of flight HKS241 or the cause(s) of the accident” (Para 1.1).

However, the Report does look at the impact Statoil may have had on helicopter safety regimes during this period of offshore retrenchment. The Report concludes that  “There is a need to strengthen safety by highlighting and better understanding the relationship between technical and commercial factors that, either individually or combined, can affect safety…”, accepting that “…the petroleum industry is faced with challenges that may affect the focus on helicopter safety. Statoil must therefore be clear in its ambition to maintain the current standard of helicopter safety and continually improve it.” (para 1.2).

The commercial factors referred to include contract provisions, particularly the penalty regimes that hit helicopter operators if flights are delayed or helicopters are unserviceable.  The Report states these “may negatively affect helicopter safety”. Some of those interviewed as a part of the investigation maintained that these penalties can contribute to stress amongst pilots and mechanics, and increase the risk of making mistakes or, as the Report states, “stretching it too far” (para 4.2.2). The NCAA [Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority] warned Statoil that: “a weak economic position and reduction of helicopter operator personnel can lead to safety culture withering” (para 4.2.4).

HeliOffshore’s CEO Gretchen Haskins gave evidence to the Inquiry and told me at Helitech that she hasn’t seen evidence of a diminishing safety culture. Indeed, she considers that one of HeliOffshore’s biggest successes has been getting industry to work together on a wide range of safety issues with 102 current members including nearly 40 operators. Haskins cites the HUMS Best Practice guide as an example of one of HeliOffshore’s best achievements so far; it is indeed a major step forward in a critical area.  This is evidence of HeliOffshore’s clear strategy of delivering safety improvements, and the tools to help, that make a tangible difference in improving the safety culture at the front line.

The Statoil Report does find however that the contract requirements imposed on offshore operators, in combination with other factors, may contribute to negative effects on helicopter safety.

The other factors include Statoil contract alterations.  A reduced need for helicopters, combined with a need to reduce costs by renegotiating rates has affected the helicopter operators’ financial position.  Statoil are certainly not alone in calling helicopter operators in on more than one occasion and demanding rate cuts as the price of oil plummeted. This Report considers whether Statoil may have stretched operators too far and impacted safety, although the language used to say so is understandably guarded: “The investigation agrees with this view [that operators may have been stretched too far] and believes that it underscores the importance of facilitating holistic mapping and management of all factors that, taken individually or in combination, can affect helicopter transport safety….” (para 4.2.4).

The Report also recognises that “…the organisation of helicopter safety-related work in Statoil is complicated, with many participants and a varying understanding of each individual participant’s role. This particularly applies to the departments for flight safety, air transport and procurement, together with personnel with the role of Company Representative”.

Whilst the Report believes this has not impacted safety, the internal complexity does transfer through to the helicopter operators who have to find their way around the maze of people, reporting and requirements.

Overall, this is a very brave Report which is what you would expect from Statoil.  It highlights the potential conflict created between the safety requirements of the business and the commercial side, a tough commercial stance possibly impacting on safety and hence the need for what is referred to in the Report as ”holistic mapping”.  This conflict exists within most oil and gas companies and indeed within helicopter operators themselves.   To state unambiguously that enforced cost cutting and penalty regimes on helicopter operators has impacted helicopter safety would be a step too far for any oil and gas company, but this report is pretty close.

Copyright and full responsibility for the content of this article remains with Allan Blake, an independent Aviation Consultant. He was Regional Director (Asia Pacific) with the Bristow Group for seven years. He is also the author of “Dynamic Directors: Aligning Board Structure for Business Success” (Macmillan).

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