Nfld. & Labrador

Offshore workers circulate petition against night flights

A debate about the safety of night flights is being reopened with a report that recommends that night flights for oil workers off eastern Newfoundland.

Debate reignited as oil companies argue for resumption for helicopter flights in darkness

Cougar Helicopters flights to offshore oil installations were suspended in 2010, following a recommendation by the Wells inquiry into helicopter safety. (C-NLOPB )

A debate about the safety of night flights is being reopened by a consultant's report that recommends offshore oil workers can be safely flown in darkness to and from platforms and rigs off Newfoundland's east coast.

Workers at the Hibernia and Terra Nova oil fields are circulating petitions against a resumption of helicopter flights at night, just as the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board reviews a report saying conditions have improved enough to make the flights safe and practical.

The C-NLOPB, which posted the report on its website Tuesday, said the document is now under review. [Read the report in its entirety here.]

The report, by Ottawa-based consultant Keith Gladstone, recommends the night flights that were suspended in 2010 should resume, and says that "all of the concerns with respect to night flight operations have been addressed satisfactorily."

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, however, remains opposed to regularly scheduled night flights, calling them unsound and unnecessary.

Sheldon Peddle, who co-chairs one of the occupational safety committees at Hibernia, said if the C-NLOPB makes night flights routine, a lot of offshore workers will be put in "a very precarious position" in terms of their careers.

"If they're going to say that night flights are just a routine part of the offshore job and we just have to do it, I mean, there are a lot of people who are going to stick by their guns and say, 'Look, I'm not flying  and come what may' and we'll see where it goes from there," Peddle told CBC's Radio Noon program.

"There are [also] going to be other people who are going to be faced with that possibility and may just decide, 'Well, it's not worth the risk to me, I need to work.' "

Peddle, who has been active over the years with the CEP, said that even if changes are made in equipment and safety procedures, there are too many risks to fly at night.

He said workers are particularly concerned about what would happen if a chopper had to ditch at sea in the dark.

Cancelled during Wells inquiry

Night flights were halted during the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry headed by retired justice Robert Wells, who demanded that Cougar Helicopters meet conditions to ensure that such flights could be carried out with minimum risk to workers.

The Wells recommendations included topics such as training and equipment.

"Based on all of the initiatives over the past couple of years, each of the three recommendations in the OHSI report has been successfully addressed," Gladstone's report found.

Wells was appointed to head his inquiry in the wake of the March 2009 crash of a Cougar Helicopters flight, which killed 17 people. Only one person survived the incident, which became a watershed moment in the offshore oil industry and drew critical attention to the Sikorsky S-92A, the aircraft involved in the crash.

The crash occurred in the middle of the morning, but the incident and its aftermath brought out anxieties from workers about the helicopters used to ferry them to and from work, including worries about the safety of flying at night.

The Wells inquiry had heard from expert witness Michael Taber who testified that the survival rate for crashing or ditching at night was 39 per cent, compared to 70 per cent in daytime.

But Gladstone's report challenges that finding.

"When discussing the risk of survival after a night ditching in a helicopter, one has to acknowledge the risk of having to conduct a ditching in the first place," the report said.

"The likelihood of a ditching is remote, especially given the recent modifications made to the S-92A."

Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, said that the C-NLOPB's response to this report will be significant. 

"It will be the first key, fundmental test for the board in the post-Wells era, since Commissioner Wells's report," said Payne. 

"They [board members] have to decide if they are going to side with workers' safety or side with the wishes of the oil companies, and cave to those demands."