Nfld. & Labrador

It's a little scary, and that's the point: What I learned at an offshore safety course

CBC reporter Carolyn Stokes tags along for a mandatory course where the stakes for offshore workers are quite real.

Reporter Carolyn Stokes tags along for a safety course where the stakes are quite real

A warning siren is wailing.

Orange-coloured emergency lights are circling the walls of a cramped, concrete room.

There's a fire in the galley, explains a staticky voice from the two-way radio.

"I'm ordering all personnel to don their immersion suits, remain calm, and stand by."

Twelve comrades and I — I call us the "lucky 13" — clumsily shimmy into the red, neoprene immersion suits, tuck our heads into the hoods, and pull the zippers tightly over our chins.

We look like a band of Teletubbies. Only our little round faces are exposed.

Next stop, lifeboat.

One scenario after another

Our lives, by the way, are not at risk. I am at Falck Safety Services in Donovans Industrial Park, in Mount Pearl, and I am tagging along for a mandatory safety program offered to workers in the offshore oil industry.

The training simulates conditions in which offshore oil workers would need to find shelter in a life-raft. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

It's a refresher course  — filled with one scenario after another — that every person, whether it be a food services employee or a senior executive, must complete every three years to qualify for work on offshore oil platforms or vessels.

Hiding beneath my mask is a giddy grin, tickled by the drama of the situation, knowing full well that we're all safe — none of it is real — even though it's supposed to feel as real, and as serious, as possible.  

The hallways could be filled with smoke so we haul on another hood with a protective mask. Then the team walks single-file down the dark hallway, each person guided by one hand on the wall, and the other hand, on the shoulder of the person ahead.

The atmosphere rattles. The layers of protective gear on my head muffle the mixture of sound — deep-throated horns, the clanking of metal against metal, cracks of thunder, the pulsing white noise of crashing waves — but amplify the sound of each insulated breath.

Donned in protective gear, the participants are ready for tank simulations at a facility in Mount Pearl. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

For the dozen trainees, it's been-there-done-that. Some of them have done this pretend march to safety many times before.

I'm just a curious participant with no real skin in the game.

But the real trainees know the stakes.

After all, painful legacies loom large in Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil industry, particularly the 1982 sinking of the Ocean Ranger exploration rig, which killed 84 people, and the 2009 crash of a Cougar Sikorsky helicopter that killed 17 people.

"It's better to have the training, and never need to use it, than not have the training, and need it," Mike Walsh, an offshore installation specialist, tells me. This is his ninth time doing the course.

A dark and stormy morning

The first part of the course is taking place at the Falck Safety Services tank. The facility includes a pool and equipment that can mimic the often ferocious conditions in the Atlantic Ocean.

"Today the focus is on sea survival," said Sean Fitzpatrick, manager of the facility.

Sean Fitzpatrick says the training is designed to simulate harsh weather conditions in the North Atlantic. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

"Preparing for the emergency, responding to alarms, abandoning the installation, and surviving at sea long enough to be rescued."

"Doing the training in a benign pool environment has its benefits, but if you really want to make the training meaningful and beneficial then the best thing to do is try to recreate weather like we would experience in the North Atlantic," said Fitzpatrick.

With the push of a button, instructors command winds up to 70 knots, waves over a metre high, an onslaught of rain, roaring thunder, lightning flashes, and a range of audio effects to make the experience feel as realistic as possible.

Carolyn Stokes takes part in a mandatory training program for offshore oil workers 5:30

"Sounds to simulate helicopter noises or ships coming in, people calling for help, whatever you can think of, we can basically do in here."

Making our escape

Some of the exercises are supposed to be physically and mentally challenging, especially if you're afraid of heights.

"We'll feed some kind of problem to the group, a fire offshore, something to that effect, they'll move to the escape chute," Fitzpatrick explained.

A daunting 20-foot-tall escape chute, a tube of netting with ladder rungs designed to incrementally break your fall, during the drop into the tiny life-raft below. Rain, wind, thunder and lightning bombard the senses.

Then we jump into the rough waves to swim to a bigger life-raft that has a protective tented roof.

Once inside, it's difficult to get your balance in the soft-bottomed raft, even while sitting. It feels like being trapped inside the bouncy castle at the Regatta, but slick with water, with a dozen jumping children hell-bent on giving you a rough ride. It might as well be an inflated shrine to sea sickness. But the real queasy feeling comes from imagining experiencing this terrifying scenario outside the controlled and safe environment of an indoor pool.

But the worst is yet to come.

No chute, no life-raft

The lights come on, the rain and wind shut off. There's no need for wild weather.  The final exercise is intimidating enough.

It's the "worst case scenario", the immediate evacuation of an oil platform with no emergency chute or life-raft.

The only option? Jump.

It's better to have the training, and never need to use it, than not have the training, and need it.- Mike Walsh

"It's only about 12 feet, but that's enough for most people to make it psychologically challenging," said Fitzpatrick.  

Peering over the top ledge above the pool, the distance looks much higher than 12 feet, perhaps because you can see far below the water's surface to the bottom of the tank.

This exercise is optional. There's a lower platform offered to those who can't handle the height. A few trainees opt for that route.

But watching everyone else jump two at a time from the highest platform, pride overpowers the fear of heights.

My toes breach the ledge, and I look down.

Don't hold your nose

I wonder if the water will feel like a fire hose blasting into my sinuses when I break the surface, so I ask, "Can I hold my nose?"

The sympathetic instructor, Krista MacLeod, says that's a bad idea. Holding your nose means making a fist in front of your face, a fist that could pack a punch on impact with the water, causing two black eyes and maybe a broken nose. It's happened before.

I'm both glad and sorry I asked.

I fold my arms like a genie about to go back into the bottle, and ask MacLeod for a countdown. "Five ... four ... three ..."

I consciously grit my teeth together for fear of accidentally biting off my tongue if I hit the surface with a slack jaw. Could happen, I suppose.

"... two ... one."

A step forward into the dead air, a feet-first plunge.

A cheer erupts from the sidelines, and the momentary terror is over. Belly full of chlorinated water. Tongue intact. Pride intact.

With that, the tank training is complete. In the afternoon, things get even more real.

Taking it to the bay

Falck Safety Services partners with Cougar Helicopter search and rescue crews for joint training exercises in the Atlantic Ocean.

"It shows us how the rescuers would do the rescue portion of sea survival," said MacLeod.

This exercise is about more than just teamwork: participants must bond together in formation, to help protect themselves on the open sea. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

We board the boat in Conception Bay and head toward Kellys Island. At the same time, the Cougar helicopter crew is en route from St. John's.

The inflatable life-raft is deployed from the boat, and we each step into the sea, grab a rope connecting the two vessels, and drag ourselves through the water to the lifeboat.  

The immersion suit feels different when you're submerged in the water, a surprisingly tight squeeze that makes all your limbs feel vacuum-packed.

Here comes the beast 

We are fortunate to have a calm day on the ocean — light winds, gentle waves — but conditions won't stay that way for long.   

I'm offered the honour of lighting the flare to signal the chopper.

The beast of an aircraft responds by hovering just above the life-raft so we can experience the full force of the downdraft.

It feels like a hurricane suddenly descends; seawater whips our faces, fills our mouths with the briney, metallic taste of the bay, and makes it difficult to see through a stinging lens of salt water stuck to our eyeballs.

It's a little scary.

And that's the point.

"They get to see what it's like for a helicopter to show up, and not to panic," said Cougar helicopter pilot Pawel  Pienkowski. "It gets loud. It gets really windy."

CBC reporter Carolyn Stokes learned a great deal about safety training that's mandatory for offshore oil workers. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

We see a person dangle out of the chopper, attached to a cable being slowly lowered into the water. The aircraft lurches forward dragging the daring crew member to the edge of the life-raft.

Nothing to fear

The smiling face of rescuer Guy St-Denis pops from the water to greet all the trainees who are rolling around inside the raft. With a thick French accent, he jokes that this is the kind of visit everyone hopes they'll never get.

But if it does happen, at least they will know what to expect.

"They see how we go through the sequence," says St-Denis. "To see that there is nothing to be afraid of, and for them to have a warm feeling that, if something happens, we'll be there to recover them."                

MacLeod says it's not the kind of experience you can teach in a classroom.

Trainer Krista MacLeod wants participants to be ready for challenging situations that she hopes never arise. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

"You're training for something you hope you never have to encounter, but you're prepared for it if you do."

'We can't afford to have a bad day'

St-Denis and Pienkowski carry on with the Cougar demonstration, lowering a basket from the chopper and recovering a person, a dummy, from the ocean. The trainees are there to observe, to see what it looks like to hoist a person to safety.

"We get a lot out of it," says Pienkowski. "We get training done, keep our efficiency and our skills up. We can't afford to have a bad day, and the more we do this, the better we get."

The same logic applies to the 12 offshore workers who will have to repeat this course again in three years, no matter where in the world they are working.

Participants in a helicopter offshore training program must do part of their program in the open waters of Conception Bay. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Donnie Paris, an offshore worker with Schlumberger, has done the course twice, and ends the day with confidence.

"You are fully loaded with the skills to survive."

I, on the other hand, am glad to have just survived the day with minor discomfort, having ingested a nauseating cocktail of chlorinated and ocean water, feeling the beginnings of an adrenaline hangover and an aching introduction to muscles I didn't even know I had.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Carolyn Stokes

Journalist

Carolyn Stokes is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and frequently cohosts Here & Now.

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