Replacement of North Sea rescue ships with helicopters in consultation

Jul 06, 2000 02:00 AM

Frank Urquhart, a hero of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster warned that lives would be placed at risk by plans to replace North Sea rescue ships with helicopters. Ian Letham, now a safety training consultant, condemned the controversial proposal by BP Amoco, part of a radical shake-up which many fear other companies will follow.
Mr. Letham, 39, who was awarded the George Medal for saving lives as a member of a rescue craft at Piper Alpha, on which 167 people died, warned that helicopters could not fly in the worst North Sea conditions. He said: "It's as if BP Amoco have learned nothing from the Piper Alpha disaster. To say that all of a sudden we can use choppers when no-one was rescued by helicopter on the night of Piper Alpha is ridiculous. They are gambling here with people's lives -- and all for the sake of reducing costs."Mr. Letham said that on the night of the 1988 Piper Alpha tragedy no-one was rescued from the rig by helicopter, but 45 people were saved by ships. Helicopters were restricted to a role of shuttling people from shore to hospital.
He added: "In a worst-case scenario you have to ask whether people will be able to be rescued by helicopters -- and the answer is they are not, not if there are gas clouds and excessively strong winds. This is a backward step in safety for the North Sea."

Mr. Letham issued his warning on the eve of the 12th anniversary of Piper Alpha, as other experts claimed that BP Amoco's plan could see the loss of a third of Britain's Merchant Navy fleet.
Jeremy Daniel, the chairman of the Emergency Response and Rescue Vessel Association, told: "If all the other oil companies followed the same line as BP, we could lose 100 ships; we would probably be left no more than 20 vessels across the North Sea. "We presently have a total of 115 standby vessels, crewed by total of 2,400 seamen - representing almost one third of the ships left operating under the Red Ensign."
Mr. Daniel added: "This is a fight for survival. We believe that the facts of thecase make it incredible to us that this idea of relying entirely on helicopters could be applied outright."The Inter-Union Offshore Oil Committee (IUOOC), which represents the majority of offshore workers, also joined in the condemnation.
Spokesman Steve Todd said: "We welcome the use of helicopters to help in rescue and recovery, but to replace standby vessels with helicopters is totally unacceptable. To remove the standby vessels from the immediate vicinity we think would be disastrous."Mr. Todd said the unions were concerned that, should BP Amoco's proposals get the go ahead, other major oil companies would follow their lead in the drive to save costs. IUOOC officials plan to raise their concerns with BP Amoco and the Health and Safety Executive.

BP Amoco denies that the changes are cost driven and has pledged to fully consult the company's offshore workforce before reaching a final decision on its proposals to replace 17 standby vessels with four offshore-based helicopters and two land-based aircraft, together with platform-launched fast rescue craft.
Spokesman Paul Diamond said: "We are still in the early stage of consultation with our workforce. But we would not be advocating these changes if we did not believe they would enhance the workforce's safety."

Source: The Scotsman Online via Newspage
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