Monitoring of waves needs to improve, offshore workers say

Offshore workers in Newfoundland and Labrador are pushing the offshore petroleum board to force oil companies to come up with a better way to monitor sea states to help ensure workers are as safe as possible.
Brian Murphy, with Unifor, says offshore workers want to make sure every possible measure is being taken to ensure their safety, and their lives and safety can't be measured in dollars. (CBC)

Offshore workers in Newfoundland and Labrador are pushing the offshore petroleum board to force oil companies to come up with a better way to monitor sea states to help ensure workers are as safe as possible.

One of the safety measures put in place after the Cougar 491 crash is the helicopters transporting workers offshore can't fly when waves measure more than six metres.

However, workers told CBC News they have concerns about where those measurements are being taken.

Brian Murphy, the Unifor representative for offshore workers, said anxiety about flights had been building leading up to an incident in March when some workers refused to fly.

Murphy said on that day, the waverider buoy at Hibernia showed waves less than the regulated six metres, but workers had information from other weather sources indicating that seas en route to the offshore were much higher.

"They exercised their legislative right to refuse unsafe work, and they refused it on the basis that they were flying over seas that were beyond the capacity of the emergency flotation devices for the S-92," he said.
Brad de Young says there's no exact way to measure the height of waves, and the readings provided are average heights measured in a certain area. (CBC)

Helicopters carrying workers to and from St. John's to three offshore platforms travel over the ocean every day, a distance of more than 300 kilometres out into the North Atlantic.

However, the wave measurement is taken at the offshore installation, leaving workers to question if the waves are higher that six metres in between.

Brad de Young, an Oceanographer at Memorial University in St. John's, said there's plenty of room in the distance for some variation.

He said there are other ways to measure waves, but they may not be so easy.

"There are actually some satellite systems that can make rough measurements of waves, but obviously the best way to do it is to have a buoy or something in the water that makes measurements," said de Young.

Solutions won't be cheap

Waverider buoys, like one deployed off St. John's by the Marine Institute every spring, can measure the height of waves in a location.

De Young said one more buoy taking measurements between St. John's and the rigs could solve the problem, but in winter ice will be a challenge.

"These buoys aren't cheap, they cost in the order of $50,000 to $100,000 and it would clearly take some time and effort to deploy it and to recover it."

However, Murphy said cost doesn't mean much when it could potentially help save the lives of workers in the offshore field.

"I know it's going to be difficult and I know it's going to be costly, but when you're weighing that against lives there's no comparison as far as the workers are concerned," he said.

"It's our lives and it's our livelihood, but we just want to make sure that we are operating it and travelling to it and from it in the safest possible manner."

While there's no way to eliminate all risk to working offshore, workers said this would be one more security measure that could help prevent another tragedy.

Until then, Murphy said they'll continue to push the C-NLOPB to force oil companies to get a more accurate picture of wave heights between land and the offshore.

With files from Chris O'Neill-Yates


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