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Helicopter Safety (North Sea)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 24th October 2017.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

I ask those who are leaving the chamber to do so quietly, please. The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-07724, in the name of Lewis Macdonald, on workforce concerns regarding helicopter safety in the North Sea. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament understands that the Civil Aviation Authority has lifted the ban on the use of Superpuma H225LP and AS332L2 helicopters in the UK despite continuing concerns over the safety of these helicopters among offshore workers; further understands that Airbus, the manufacturer of Superpuma helicopters, has carried out a survey of North Sea workers and aircrew in order to establish their attitudes towards helicopter safety; notes the finding that 62% of respondents would be unlikely to fly in a Superpuma helicopter, given a choice; further notes that 44% of respondents were unaware of work done to improve safety since the Superpuma crash in April 2016, including increased monitoring and inspection measures and more regular replacement of gearbox components; recognises that Unite the Union has launched a petition opposing the reintroduction of the Superpuma helicopters, signed by thousands of offshore workers in the North East Scotland parliamentary region and across the country, who remain concerned about their safety and reputation, and notes calls for flights in these Superpuma helicopters to not resume.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

I am delighted to welcome to the public gallery members of Unite the union, representatives of Airbus and others who have stayed for the debate, and I thank colleagues across parties for their support.

Tonight’s debate gives us an opportunity to put on the record the views of offshore workers on an issue that is of the utmost importance to them and their families. Offshore oil and gas workers earn their living in a hazardous industry that operates in a hazardous environment. Drilling rigs and production platforms are tough places to work the world over, and nowhere more so than in the waters that are off our coasts.

However, offshore safety is not just about the place of work, which is a chemical processing plant that is many miles from dry land and a long way from the nearest hospital. It is also about the journey to work, which carries risks of its own. Most people travel to work each day by train, bus, bike or car. Oil workers make a journey, too. They travel every month to the heliport in Aberdeen, then make a journey by helicopter to a place where they work long shifts on successive days for, often, three weeks at a time. Sometimes, they fly first from Aberdeen to Shetland, then to an offshore installation, and they do the same journey in reverse when coming home. That is a lot of hours in mid-air.

I have travelled offshore a number of times in the past 30 years and it is not the same as taking the bus. A passenger on a bus does not need to be trained in advance on how to get out if things go wrong. He or she does not need a survival suit or the other gear that is required to stay afloat and to keep breathing in the event of an accident, and they do not have to go through the process of kitting up twice in the same journey when the trip involves changing from one vehicle to another halfway there.

It is important to understand what the journey is like and what that implies for workforce safety. Formal certification of safety on its own is not enough. Taking a chopper to work in the North Sea is not the same as joyriding at an air show on a summer’s afternoon. The journey is also about the gear, the safety procedures, the unpredictable flying conditions and the hazardous environment. When workers have to deal with all that before they get to work, they need the certification, but they also need to feel that the aircraft that they are travelling on is fit for purpose.

That is what is at issue this evening, because Super Puma helicopters do not feel safe to many of those who might be asked to step on board. Unite the union has collected thousands of signatures that confirm that that is the view of its offshore members, some of whom are here.

Airbus, which makes Super Pumas, has done its own survey. It found that 62 per cent of helicopter crew and passengers in the North Sea would not fly in Super Pumas, given the choice. It also found that 44 per cent were unaware of the efforts that Airbus had made to address the issues that caused Super Pumas to be grounded in the first place.

Those efforts are significant. Airbus has a good deal of professional engineering expertise, and it has applied all its technology and expertise to addressing the critical issues. It has briefed MSPs accordingly.

The facts of the matter are not in dispute—they have been established by national and international civil aviation regulators. The Super Puma 225 that crashed in Norway last year did so because a crack that developed in the gearbox led to catastrophic failure, and the helicopter dropped out of the sky. Thirteen passengers and crew died as a result.

Airbus has made public what it believes caused the crack to develop where it did, and it has put mitigation measures in place. For example, two different companies previously supplied versions of the part that Airbus believes was at the heart of the gearbox failure. In the future, Airbus will use only one version from one supplier. Mechanisms for detecting faults or failures have been improved, and maintenance rules and procedures have been tightened up.

All those steps are welcome, but they do not guarantee that such faults or failures will never happen again, which is why so many people remain unconvinced. It is important to know how and why a crack develops, but it is also important to know how long it takes before that becomes critical and how much time there is to take action to deal with it. It is right to remove the less safe of two alternative components from the supply chain, but we also need to know whether there are other parts of the aircraft where safety-critical components are supplied by different companies and what is being done about them.

It is interesting to know that Airbus could reduce the number of seats and improve the internal cabin space in the 225, but there is no certainty that that will happen if helicopter operating companies cannot make a profit when flying with fewer passengers.

There are wider questions, which are not just for Airbus. In 2014, my friend and former colleague as the Aberdeen North MP, Frank Doran, won the support of the Transport Committee at Westminster for a public inquiry into helicopter safety in the North Sea, but that call was rejected by the Tory transport secretary of the day.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

Lewis Macdonald will appreciate that, given my ministerial office, I cannot make a speech in the debate. However, as the issue affects a number of my constituents, I ask him whether he agrees that, as well as communication with the workforce, which is essential, wider communication is required with the families of the workforce and with the communities—particularly those in Dyce and Bridge of Don—where there are regular helicopter flights over built-up areas, whose members often have concerns about what the impact of helicopter safety might be on their communities.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

Mark McDonald makes a good point. A lot of this is to do with communication—in a sense, it is the central point. It is not only about finding technical solutions to technical problems but about the communication with the workforce, their families and the wider community—hence the call that was made three years ago for a public inquiry into helicopter safety that would look not only at the technical standards but at the related communications.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and other unions in the offshore co-ordinating group have this week repeated the call for a public inquiry. When the minister responds to the debate, I will be interested to hear the Scottish Government’s view on that, although I recognise that the responsibility lies elsewhere.

Offshore trade unions have argued that helicopter transport needs to be on the agenda of the oil industry’s regulators—the Oil and Gas Authority and the Health and Safety Executive—as well as the agenda of the Civil Aviation Authority. That makes the same point that this is not just about technical standards but about workforce engagement and confidence, and the issue is for the whole industry.

The partnership of the workforce, unions and regulators must be strengthened, not weakened, if the North Sea is to have a safe and successful future, and that is why the views of the workforce must be heeded by all concerned. Only by putting the workforce at the centre can we have the oil and gas industry that we need and which operates to the standards that those who work in it deserve.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I thank Lewis Macdonald for securing this members’ business debate. I completely concur with his last sentiment—that the workforce must be at the centre.

Sadly, one of my earliest duties in the chamber after being elected was to put a question—I think that it was the very first question that I put—to the First Minister about the safety of the Super Puma H225 fleet in Scotland. That came after the tragedy in April 2016 that took the lives of 13 people, including one of my constituents, Mr lain Stuart, who was a father of two from Laurencekirk.

At that point, the fleet was grounded—and rightly so—to allow an investigation to be carried out to ascertain why that model of helicopter, which at that point was responsible for about 140,000 flights a year across the United Kingdom, appeared to have recurring gearbox problems.

Between 2009 and 2016, four flights came down in the North Sea with mechanical failure, and two of those incidents led to fatalities, with the loss of 29 lives. Because of that, it is not difficult to understand the concerns and the reluctance of offshore workers, and their families at home, to travel offshore when they depend on the helicopter fleet for transport to and from platforms in the challenging and often hostile environment that Lewis Macdonald described.

Lewis Macdonald points out in his motion that Airbus, which is the company that makes the Super Puma helicopters, carried out a survey of pilots and passengers that found that 62 per cent would prefer not to fly in Super Pumas and that 44 per cent were unaware of the work that has been carried out to improve safety since the tragedy in 2016.

I raised that issue with Airbus last week when I met the company to discuss the Civil Aviation Authority’s recent decision and to ask what had been done to improve the safety of the workforce in the oil industry. Airbus went through in detail each of the incidents that have happened over the past few years, in particular that of April 2016, and the methods that were used by the hundreds of engineers and scientists who investigated not only the design of the part that caused the problem but the history of the individual gearbox that failed so catastrophically—from its construction, individual parts, transportation and installation to its final operation.

The outcome of Airbus’s investigation found that a combination of factors led to the gearbox failure in 2016. That has resulted in a number of changes being made, some of which Lewis Macdonald outlined.

The gearbox parts that were identified as contributing to the accident have been replaced with alternatives that are already safely in use in other helicopter models. Airbus has reduced the service life for various gearbox parts from 4,000 flight hours to 1,000 flight hours. The particle detection system and related inspection criteria have also been improved, and a new transit packaging system has been introduced that monitors gearboxes for the unexpected forces that Airbus believes contributed to the failure of parts in the incident last year. In addition, aircraft operators are no longer permitted to separate the modules of the main gearbox and must send them to Airbus’s own maintenance venues. I hasten to add that that was only a brief and non-technical overview of some of the changes that have been made.

When I asked Airbus about the results of the survey, I was told that the company still had to engage with the industry as a whole, including the workforce, trade unions and the operators. That is the key issue. It is all very well that, as members of the Scottish Parliament and politicians, we can be briefed, but we are not the ones who need to be convinced about the fleet’s safety. I very much appreciated the chance to meet Airbus last week, but I am conscious that those who work in the industry are yet to get the information, the briefing and the opportunity to ask questions that I received. Mark McDonald made the point that the wider community also needs to be informed about the changes that have been made.

Airbus is just at the start of the process and it still has a lot of work to do. There is also the fact that, although we have a preliminary report on the incident in 2016 from the Accident Investigation Board in Norway, the final investigation report is still to come.

I stress that I am fully behind and support offshore workers. It is our absolute duty to ensure as far as possible that those in our workforce fly only in aircraft in which they not only feel safe but are safe. My husband has to go offshore; I have family and friends who work in the industry who have to do the same. No one can live in the north-east of Scotland and not know anybody who works offshore.

I would never expect anyone to do anything that I would not be willing or happy to do if I was in their position. That is why I will support the return of this helicopter to service only if the workforce feels happy and secure enough to travel on it. Those in the workforce are the ones who are taking the risks and it is only right that we support them.

Photo of Alexander Burnett Alexander Burnett Conservative

I thank Lewis Macdonald for bringing this important topic to members’ business today.

It is, without a doubt, the consensus that the loss of life due to the failure of Super Puma helicopters was unacceptable and a tragedy that we do not want to see again. Aberdeen and the wider oil and gas industry across the UK can take pride in its health and safety record. It continues to be a world leader in that regard.

There is no doubt that Super Puma helicopters have brought concerns for oil companies and workers alike. As Oil & Gas UK stated earlier this year,

“The safety of the offshore workforce is of paramount importance to the industry”.

More recently, it said that the decision to use the Super Puma rests with the operator, its workforce and their helicopter operator.

I am grateful that the manufacturers of the Super Puma helicopters, Airbus, has taken the concerns seriously. Airbus is now in the process of meeting workers from oil companies who use these helicopters to inform them of the changes that it has made to make the aircraft safe. It will be interesting to see what feedback is received, and how Airbus acts on any further concerns.

After investing millions in improving the safety of its aircraft, Airbus has carried out thousands of tests on all parts of its helicopters. Following the investigation, it improved practices by increasing the frequency of inspections; imposing stricter criteria; overhauling detection methods for failures; increasing monitoring of individual parts; and reducing maximum operation times for parts by a factor of four. It has gone as far as prohibiting parts within its aircraft completely. Those are the kind of rigorous health and safety checks that we now expect from our oil and gas industry. That Airbus has done its utmost to live up to that rigour is no less than we would expect.

The problem that Airbus faces is about regaining the confidence of workers. That was evident from the recent survey results. However, with checks having been completed only earlier this year, it is too early to call for an all-out ban. It is also too early to expect workers to be aware of the work that has gone into improving the safety of the aircraft.

I completely understand workers’ reasons for being cautious, but Airbus has produced a thorough investigation and performed thousands of tests, and it should now be allowed time to get around all companies who use the helicopters so that it has adequate time to speak to workers and reassure them of their safety.

The health and safety checks have been completed. Revisions have been considered. Changes have been made. Airbus now needs to communicate that to those who use the Super Puma and restore confidence.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

I draw attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests—in particular, my membership of the Unite and GMB trade unions. I welcome those trade union members who are in the public gallery tonight; members are the lifeblood of the trade union movement.

I remind Parliament that it was the Aberdonian trade union leader Jimmy Milne who, when he became the General Secretary of the Scottish TUC, led on from the call of his predecessor, Jimmy Jack, who—in 1972—demanded the establishment of a Scottish Parliament as a workers’ Parliament. I am not quite sure that Jimmy Milne and Jimmy Jack would say that we have achieved that yet but I welcome Lewis Macdonald’s initiative in securing this timely debate in Parliament on a matter of the highest importance to workers in this most strategically important industry in Scotland.

It is a primary industry where the extraction of a natural and national asset comes up all too often against conflicting interests, between multinational private industrial ownership whose first duty is to shareholder returns and a workforce for whom our first duty—our first duty in this Parliament—must be to secure their health and safety at work, including their safety in travelling to and from to work.

If we had anything resembling industrial democracy, we would not need to have this debate at all, but it is precisely because we do not have industrial democracy—precisely because we have an industrial balance of power that is tilted in favour of the owners and the operators—that this is such a highly charged debate.

It is a bit disappointing but not surprising to hear the Conservative Party, as I understand it, refusing point blank to back the trade union campaign. We heard it again just a few moments ago—the decision to use the Super Puma rests, it says, with the operator, its workforce and its helicopter operator.

In my view, that is a negation of the Cullen edict that in the North Sea the frequency of accidents may be low, but the potential consequences are very serious. As others have pointed out, even Airbus’s own figures reveal that as many as 62 per cent of all those who have been surveyed by Airbus are

“very uncomfortable and unlikely to fly in a Super Puma again”.

We must all understand that when we add to that the 15 per cent who are

“uncomfortable and would need more safety information before flying again”,

it becomes abundantly clear why the Unite campaign has moved from being a back home safe campaign to a no comeback for the Puma—make the North Sea Puma free campaign. I hope that the minister in his closing remarks will pledge his full support for this important trade union safety campaign.

There is added poignancy to this debate because the Super Puma crash just off the coast at Bergen in Norway that concerns us tonight, in which 13 souls lost their lives, took place on Friday 29 April 2016, the day after international workers memorial day—the day when we, let us not forget, “Remember the dead, fight for the living.” If that is to be more than a slogan, we need to act upon it.

As the RMT union reminds us in its briefing for this debate, next year is the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster—the pain from that is still being felt by widows, orphans and survivors right across the country. We owe it to them to find a new determination in this Parliament to say to those offshore workers who are with us tonight, and to all those beyond, that we in this Parliament are on their side and it is the duty of Parliament to make sure that such tragedies never happen again—that we not only hear them, but listen as well.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I say to visitors in the gallery that it is not appropriate either to clap or to cat call. If visitors want to show their appreciation, there will be an opportunity to do so at the end of the debate.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I thank Lewis Macdonald for securing this important debate. I was going to say “for our area”, because, as north-easterners, we often forget how many other people in Scotland, and particularly in the north of England, work offshore.

I come to the debate from the perspective of those who work offshore and their families. More than 20,000 flights are made every year to installations hundreds of miles off land, where men and women go to work for weeks before returning home to their family and friends. We know that the journey to and from the installation is potentially the most hazardous aspect of working offshore as it stands, by its very nature. We must make sure that the helicopters in use are the safest available.

For nearly 20 years, when I ran my own company, I periodically flew to platforms in the North Sea, west of Shetland and beyond. Considerable procedures, precautions, mitigation measures and training are in place, but if something goes wrong over the North Sea, every one of us on that flight knows that the chances of survival from a ditching helicopter are not high. I can understand why those who have to make such journeys with far more frequency than I ever did may now need more reassurance about the helicopters that they are asked to board.

In representing its members, the union Unite, which has been mentioned a lot today, has, just in the past couple of days, reinforced its message that strike action will be threatened if Super Pumas are put back into use. We also know that, at this point, certain companies have decided that they will not put their personnel on them, despite Airbus reassurances on their safety, and the fact that the UK and Norwegian civil aviation authorities have, as of July this year, deemed the Super Pumas safe. In a workforce survey carried out by Airbus, which many members have mentioned, 62 per cent of respondents said that they would not want to use the Super Puma again. A further 15 per cent said that they would not be comfortable boarding a Super Puma until more guarantees about safety changes had been explained. In other words, three out of four North Sea workers are unhappy at this point about boarding a Super Puma again.

We know that while the fleet of Super Pumas is not being used in the UK, they continue to be used all over the world. Airbus has said that it has a full understanding of the cause of the crash in Norway and has put forward a number of measures that make it confident that such a tragedy would not be repeated. Others have mentioned what those measures are, and we have had briefings as members of the Scottish Parliament. I will not repeat what my colleagues have said about them.

The deaths of 13 people last year, off the coast of Norway, were a real turning point for many offshore workers who do not feel they can make their journeys to work on those helicopters any longer. Of course, they already had significant lingering confidence issues over the integrity of the Super Puma after the tragic accident off the coast of Peterhead in 2009 in which 16 people died, including Stuart Wood from my own home village of Newmachar. As the MSP of his mother, Audrey, and his sister, Kerry, I cannot stand here today and advocate anything other than extreme caution over helicopters that have repeatedly had issues before and since that devastating day. I guess that, at this point, “extreme caution” translates into not using them again, given the recurring faults.

Can Airbus and the helicopter operators do more to communicate and to convince North Sea workers and operators that they can feel confident travelling in Super Pumas? Yes—perhaps. It has been pointed out that they really are at the start of the communication process. We have all made suggestions today about how that might be improved. However, right now, I am not so sure that confidence can ever come back. Until it does, I do not think that any of us should ask people who already face significant risk in doing the jobs that they do offshore to board them.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

As there are a few more members who wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[

Lewis Macdonald

]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

I want to make a few brief remarks. For the record, I declare that I am a member of Unite the union and the GMB.

I congratulate Lewis Macdonald on securing the debate and associate myself with his remarks. As Richard Leonard did, I commend Unite the union, the people in the gallery and all those who have been involved in the back home safe campaign, as well as the on-going work of the offshore co-ordinating group, which consists of representatives from Unite and the other trade unions that organise offshore workers.

As we have heard, those who represent the workforce have made their position clear. Despite the decision by the Civil Aviation Authority to lift the ban on the Eurocopter EC225 and mark 2 Super Pumas, there are still serious and fundamental questions to be asked about the safety record of those aircraft. Since 2009, 33 workers have tragically died and 65 passengers and crew have had to be rescued as a result of accidents involving the Super Puma in the North Sea.

Oil companies have ruled out reinstating grounded Super Pumas, at least until the root cause of last year’s fatal accident off the coast of Norway is known. Statoil says that it has

“no plans to use this helicopter ever again”,

even if it is cleared to do so by the Norwegian authorities. Unite has warned that if the Super Pumas are reintroduced, it is perfectly prepared to recommend that industrial action be taken to protect its members.

As Lewis Macdonald and Richard Leonard said, the workforce needs certainty, and it needs to have confidence in safety arrangements in the North Sea. That is why, regardless of the future of the Super Puma, engagement with the trade unions must be a priority for Government and for the regulators. The UK Government must also reconsider the case for a full public inquiry into helicopter safety in the offshore sector.

The RMT believes that unique operating conditions are a contributing factor to the number of fatal and non-fatal Super Puma accidents in the North Sea. Those conditions include high crosswinds, low temperatures and other adverse conditions. Super Pumas operate worldwide without having the poor safety record that has been observed over recent years in the North Sea. We need to get to the bottom of why the safety of the aircraft is such an issue in the UK and Norway. In that regard, it would be helpful if the Scottish Government could clarify its position on the need for an independent inquiry.

I again congratulate Lewis Macdonald on securing the debate, and I urge the Government and the regulators to take the action that is needed to restore workers’ confidence and trust in helicopter safety in the North Sea.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As other members have done, I congratulate Lewis Macdonald on securing a debate on this important issue. I was happy to support his motion

, because I believe that the worries of the offshore workforce and the fact that some leading oil companies will not utilise the aircraft that are at the centre of the discussion are issues that ought to be aired in Parliament.

As far as I and other members are concerned, at the very root of the current situation is the simple fact that no one should have to travel to their work harbouring concerns about whether they will get there or return, which is what the Airbus survey of North Sea workers tells us the situation is at the moment: 62 per cent of respondents indicated that, given the choice, they would be unlikely to fly in a Super Puma helicopter.

Those fears might well be misplaced. As MSPs, each of us has been sent a briefing and a video from the manufacturers of the relevant aircraft, who have been in Parliament today to make the case that the measures that they have implemented following the incidents that have been referred to have rendered the models in question safe.

Back at the beginning of the month, the chief executive officer of Airbus Helicopters, Guillaume Faury, flew into a helicopter exhibition in London in an Airbus Helicopters H225 to demonstrate that the aircraft is safe for passenger use. It was a move that some people might consider was reminiscent of the actions of John Selwyn Gummer, the then agriculture minister, during the BSE crisis, when he tried to feed his daughter a burger and ate a bit himself to show that beef was safe to consume. However, to be fair to Mr Faury, he has acknowledged that it takes time to restore trust after accidents. The truth is that we are a very long way from reaching that destination.

As Lewis Macdonald said, the people who are expressing concerns are men and women who earn their livings in an extremely harsh and hazardous environment. They are hardy individuals, so if they are spooked—the figures suggest that they are—that is a significant matter.

We are, of course, looking at the issue following two tragic accidents that we now know have similarities—one in 2009 off the coast of Peterhead, in which 16 people lost their lives, and one in 2016 in Norway, in which 13 people sadly passed away. In 2013, there was another incident involving a Super Puma off Shetland, in which four people perished. The Unite petition opposing reintroduction of the helicopters references the fact that, overall, over eight years, Super Pumas have been involved in six incidents, which have led to 65 people being rescued from the North Sea and 33 families losing loved ones. In addition to that, we are told that Shell will not use the 225 and that BP will not use the Super Pumas until completion of the formal investigation, and the root cause of the Norwegian incident is identified. As we have heard, Statoil has stated that it will not use the models ever again.

Balancing that, Airbus has made modifications to the two models and to the maintenance programme. For example, there are now lower thresholds for rejecting deteriorating components, and there are more frequent inspections. I am no expert, but I suspect that the aircraft may, on balance, be safer to fly in than was previously the case. However, the regular users, not members of Parliament, need to be convinced of that. I find it surprising that the European Aviation Safety Agency and the UK and Norwegian civil aviation authorities have lifted their bans when no final report on the crash in Norway has been delivered and no definitive cause has been identified. Earlier this year, the Accident Investigation Board Norway published an interim report on the 2016 accident, but owing to the scope and complexity of the investigation, which I acknowledge, it was unable to estimate a completion date for its investigation. As the AIBN’s website states, only the final investigation will represent the complete report.

Against that backdrop, and given the concerns of our North Sea workers, Gillian Martin is right that we need to proceed extremely cautiously.

Photo of Tom Mason Tom Mason Conservative

I thank Lewis Macdonald for bringing the issue to public attention. I remain a City of Aberdeen councillor and a number of constituents in my ward go offshore, not least of whom is my son, who regularly travels by helicopter.

Our foremost concern in the debate is the safety of workers who rely on helicopter transportation as part of their day-to-day lives. We should reflect on the tragic accidents involving the helicopters, but we should also reflect on the work to improve them and make them safe for continued use. The point that I want to make is that the best judges of helicopter safety are not politicians or trade union officials, but the experts who specialise in aeronautical engineering.

The improvements that have been made to the H225LP and the AS332L2 have met the standards of the Civil Aviation Authority and the European Aviation Safety Agency. Airbus has conducted extensive investigations into both helicopters and has co-operated with international efforts. The CAA stated that the decision has

“only been made after receiving extensive information from the Norwegian accident investigators and being satisfied with the subsequent changes introduced by Airbus Helicopters through detailed assessment and analysis.”

If we were to call for banning the helicopters in spite of such conclusions, what would that say about the faith that we have in our regulators? At what point do we abandon our trust in their ability to work in a diligent and competent manner? Why not ban all helicopters, in that case? If we are to have the debate, it should concern the standards that a manufacturer needs to meet. It should not be about placing extra restrictions on aircraft that experts have already deemed to be safe.

That said, it is not enough to meet the standards and to carry on as if nothing has happened—the lessons of the past must be learned. Regulatory bodies and manufacturers must focus on early preventive action whenever even the most remote possibility of a problem arises. I would expect that of all the manufacturers and operators in whom offshore workers place their trust daily.

I remember flying offshore in the 1970s, in the early days of the oil industry, and I am encouraged by the progress that has been made since then.

Back then, my having one hand would not have been regarded as presenting a risk to fellow passengers. I am pleased that today’s standards are such that my travelling would not be permitted: I would not be allowed offshore. I have not had the training, I do not have the equipment, and I do not know how to handle the equipment—with one hand it is impossible to do so. I would not want to jeopardise my fellow passengers.

Operators should review their procedures in order to ensure that training is regularly improved, that flights are not overcrowded or unnecessarily weighted, and that there is no flying in excessively adverse conditions.

In respect of the survey that Airbus conducted earlier this year, it is not surprising that a majority of workers are uncomfortable with flying in the aircraft, given that 56 per cent are unaware that new safety measures have been applied to them. That was an early survey; more information is necessary to get people to understand what is taking place. Widespread public engagement would help to reassure oil and gas workers. I hope that Airbus considers that.

We should accept nothing less than the highest possible standards for helicopters. At the same time, we should trust the expertise of the CAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency. Offshore industry personnel have every right to safe working conditions. We must hold the manufacturers to that and ensure that in the future there is improved and continuous safety evaluation across the aviation industry.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

I declare an interest: I am a member of Unite the union. Also, as my son is a mechanical engineering student and is currently applying to companies in the oil and gas sector, I might have a very personal interest in this issue shortly.

I welcome members of Unite the union to the gallery and I thank my colleague Lewis Macdonald for bringing this important debate to the Parliament. I am the convener of the RMT Scottish parliamentary group, so it is important that I put across the views of RMT members as well as those of Unite members.

It is clear to offshore workers, trade unions and the public—as Mark McDonald pointed out in his intervention during Lewis Macdonald’s speech—that the Super Puma has an unacceptable safety record in flying workers to and from platforms in the North Sea, although that might not be quite as clear to the Conservative members who are in the chamber. As Neil Bibby said, there is no doubt that the unique conditions of the North Sea—the low temperatures and exceptionally high crosswinds—contribute to that inferior safety record.

The facts speak for themselves. The Super Puma has been responsible for the deaths of 33 people in North Sea crashes since 2009, and 65 other workers and crew members have been rescued during that period. As a result, as the motion says and as we have heard from members, offshore workers’ confidence in Super Pumas is extremely low, to say the least.

The RMT’s general secretary, Mick Cash, said:

“If this were a public transport service, such a terrible pattern of failure would have been tackled long ago. When workers consistently point to helicopter transport as their number one safety concern, Government and regulators at all levels must take action, or we face further deterioration in the perception of safety at work offshore”.

The RMT is therefore calling for a fully independent inquiry into offshore helicopter operations, which would cover regulatory standards and commercial pressures, to restore trust and confidence in helicopter transport operations in the North Sea. Like other members, I look forward to hearing how the Scottish Government can assist in securing an independent inquiry, if it is minded to do so.

Pat Rafferty, the Unite Scotland secretary, has said that thousands of offshore workers will be ready to strike if the Super Puma returns. That is a serious situation, but the aircraft clearly presents a danger to people who work hard for our economy. Many workers in the sector have taken to referring to it as a “flying coffin”, which gives us a clear impression of how they view that particular helicopter. The opinions of those who know the job better than anyone should be taken very seriously, particularly given that operators are not unbiased parties in this debate. There needs to be meaningful workforce engagement, as a priority.

There is no doubt that improving the safety of helicopter transport for offshore workers is a major issue that is crucial to the future employment of Scottish workers in the oil and gas industry. If there is no such improvement, more jobs and skills will flow away from our domestic industry and there will be an increase in the use of cheap labour. That is already happening in the decommissioning sector. For example, Canadian Natural Resources paid non-European Economic Area workers $45 per day to decommission the Murchison platform, and as we speak BP’s Miller platform is being decommissioned by a workforce from the Philippines, who are living on a barge connected to the platform.

The Super Pumas have been grounded since May 2016 and it seems beyond belief that they could be reintroduced without a proper independent inquiry and while there are on-going investigations into the cause of gearbox fatigue and alarm system failures. Further, last month the European Aviation Safety Agency issued an emergency directive saying that a main rotor component in the 225 is “susceptible to crack development”. Is it any wonder that workers do not want to travel in those helicopters? Surely they must have the right not to do so.

I think that this has already been mentioned, but I understand from some workers that companies such as Statoil and Shell have already indicated that they will not be using Super Pumas. I hope that other companies follow suit. The safety of offshore workers must be our number 1 priority, so the Super Pumas must stay grounded.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

First, I offer my respects to those who have been most affected personally by this issue, especially those who have lost a friend, a colleague or a loved one. I also pay tribute to the trade unions that have been active on the issue, and I congratulate Lewis Macdonald on bringing the debate to the chamber.

I have occasionally encountered a preconception that Greens would place a low priority on any issue connected to the oil and gas industry. Notwithstanding the fact that, of course, helicopter travel will be relevant for the future even with the transition to offshore renewable energy sources, I put it on record that workforce safety in relation to the existing fossil fuel industry should be a non-negotiable issue, regardless of our different views about the vested interests of that industry. I oppose nuclear energy but support nuclear safety as an extremely important priority, and the same thing applies in this context.

With the recent downturn in the oil and gas industry, one of our most important areas of concern relates to the potential, to which Elaine Smith alluded, to weaken the terms and conditions of the workforce, or, indeed, the safety conditions that they work with. That is a shared concern right across the political spectrum.

Lewis Macdonald opened the debate with a comparison with other modes of transport. I suspect that many of us who travel to work on a bus or a train will understand the point that he made and acknowledge the significant differences in relation to not just the environmental conditions but the level of safety measures that are needed. However, as well as recognising those clear differences, I think that most who travel to work on a bus or a train would recognise the importance of trust, which in this case is trust in their safety, which the workforce who have to travel to offshore installations by helicopter have a right to expect.

When rail crashes take place, we see an immediate response in the trust that people have in the rail operators. When there are stories about safety concerns relating to road vehicles, we see that same reaction. How could we not empathise with those who travel to work in a harsher environment and who have a much greater expectation that safety measures are taken to look after them in relation to the form of transport that is used? Even if we do not have the personal experience that Lewis Macdonald has had of going on helicopter journeys to offshore facilities, the question of trust is something that we can all relate to.

Even if measures have been taken by the manufacturer to address the concerns as it perceives them, if that trust has not been rebuilt, that in itself is an unacceptable aspect of people’s working conditions. They should not have to go to work using a form of transport that causes that level of lack of trust, anxiety and fear, even if work has been done. How can that trust be rebuilt if there is not full transparency by the industry and the manufacturer about the issues that they have sought to address and how they have addressed them? That lack of complete transparency is the principal reason why I join those who have expressed support for the proposal for a full independent inquiry into the issues. Greens will continue to support that call, alongside those who represent the workforce.

In the meantime, the decision should absolutely lie with the workforce, and not just with the industry or the regulators. The workforce should be respected, and if those people wish to express clearly the view that the Super Puma should not be brought back into service, their decision should absolutely be one that we all respect.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I, too, offer my condolences and the continued sympathy of the Scottish Government to those who have lost family members and friends, and to communities that have lost community members, in the tragic accidents that have taken place involving Super Puma helicopters.

I congratulate Lewis Macdonald on securing the debate and welcome his bringing the subject to the chamber. The quality of the contributions from members throughout the chamber has been high, and the debate has been nuanced. Some key, central themes have been covered in almost every speech, and I will try to pick up on them as well as answering one or two questions that members have posed.

Lewis Macdonald started his speech by setting the context, which is important. Other members, including Patrick Harvie just a moment ago, picked up on that. There are few professions in which travel to the place of work is so hazardous. There are not many industries where, to travel to work, people must wear a full survival kit, a life jacket and a rebreather just as part of their travelling attire. I have the utmost respect, as I know all members do, for every man and woman who works in the industry.

The tragic accident on 29 April last year in Norway, in which 13 people sadly died, clearly underlines the risk and the challenges of working in the North Sea. That accident followed tragedies in our own waters near Sumburgh and Peterhead. The most recent accident in Norway has been the subject of extensive investigation, and the investigation by the Norwegian regulator continues. While the exact cause is still to be determined, the UK CAA and the Norwegian CAA announced in July their intention to lift the restrictions that were placed on the H225 and the AS332L2 Super Puma helicopters following the accident in April 2016.

It is not uncommon to put in place airworthiness measures before accident investigations report. I am aware that the UK CAA has not taken the decision lightly. It made the decision after receiving extensive information from its Norwegian counterpart—from the Norwegian accident investigators—and after being satisfied with the subsequent changes that Airbus Helicopters has introduced.

I would like to be clear that any decision to lift the restrictions is made by the regulator—in this case, the UK CAA and the Norwegian CAA—and that the Scottish Government has no input into such decisions; the regulators must maintain their independence from external input. However, I would say that the UK CAA must continue to work with helicopter operators, the offshore industry and international regulators, and it is also important to work with the unions, the workforce and pilot representatives, because that is the key and the crux that just about every member who spoke in the debate touched on.

Regardless of what is and is not lifted, what restrictions have been put in place, what measures have been taken and what mitigation activity has been done, if the workforce does not have confidence—its lack of confidence is clear from the many surveys that have been quoted—we do not want to force anybody to travel to work in a mode of transport that they are deeply uncomfortable with.

A couple of members posed questions about inquiries and a public inquiry. I have been looking at my notes and I am aware, as other members will be, that prior to the accident in 2016 that I mentioned, the CAA in conjunction with the European Aviation Safety Agency, the Norwegian CAA and an independent peer review group undertook a review of offshore helicopter flying. A number of recommendations were made on the back of that, and they are being taken forward by the offshore helicopter safety action group—OHSAG. The Scottish Government very much supported the review, and Transport Scotland has observer status on the governance body.

We are generally satisfied that progress is being made in the right direction. I would be more than happy to meet Unite the union, the RMT, which Elaine Smith rightly mentioned, and any members who wish to join us in that meeting to hear whether those unions and the workforce feel that the recommendations are not being taken forward at the pace that they would like and, if so, to hear from them why an independent inquiry might well be the right route to go down. I have not settled on that. As I said, the Scottish Government has observer status on the governance body OHSAG, so we would very much look to that body to continue the work that it is doing to give confidence to the workforce where it can.

As I have said, the lifting of the restrictions on the Super Puma has raised concerns in the industry, and the unions have clearly put across the concerns of the workforce that they represent. Recent surveys by Airbus and petitions by Unite have shown that there is a clear lack of confidence in the Super Puma helicopters. Airbus has a lot of work to do to rebuild confidence and trust in the aircraft not only among the workforce and the unions but among operators. A number of members have mentioned oil and gas operators that have been clear publicly that they have no plans for the return of Super Pumas to their North Sea operations. The passengers and flight crews and their families must have confidence that everything possible is being done by regulators, the aircraft operators, the manufacturer and the oil and gas industry to minimise the risks when flying over the North Sea.

I believe that Airbus has worked hard to learn from the accidents. A number of members have said that they have met Airbus in recent days or before that. The Airbus team has not taken the accidents lightly at all; it has put some of its best minds to finding solutions that it hopes will give confidence. Nonetheless, it is now absolutely critical for Airbus to work with the workforce, the unions, the industry and the regulator to attempt to reinstil confidence and trust in the aircraft’s safety.

The CAA announcement does not mean an immediate return to service for the Super Puma. A plan of checks, modifications and inspections would need to be undertaken before any flights could take place and any reintroduction would need to be on the basis of a robust safety case being submitted by the operator to ensure that the necessary measures were in place.

Now that the regulators have decided to lift the restrictions, it is ultimately for the helicopter operators to make a decision, but I strongly encourage the operators and their customers to consider the views of the workforce. The men and women of the workforce have to travel on the Super Pumas on a daily and weekly basis, and the workforce must play a key part in any decision to reintroduce the Super Puma into North Sea operations. No decision to reinstate the Super Puma should be made unilaterally without workforce engagement at its heart.

The safety of workers in the North Sea has been and will always be the Government’s highest priority. I am reassured to see a desire in the industry, including the unions, helicopter operators, the helicopter manufacturer, oil and gas companies and regulatory bodies, to do everything possible to ensure that workers in the North Sea have a safe journey to their place of work.

Meeting closed at 18:18.