CHIRP Critical of an Oil Company’s Commercial Practices
The CHIRP Charitable Trust, who run the UK’s Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme (CHIRP), has highlighted two “of the many” reports received relating to an oil company changing its North Sea helicopter operator for the second time in three years.
CHIRP do not name the oil company. This particular case, which involved an AOC holder, who had set up bases in other EU countries to support that specific oil company, is well known in the industry and has also been covered extensively by the local press. In particular concerns were raised to CHIRP over the effect of psychological stress on flight safety amongst pilots faced with redundancy when the impending termination of the contract became known. Similar concerns were raised by the Commander of a Boeing 757 involved in a serious incident in 2013 were possible distraction due to ‘company turmoil’ was noted.
In one of the two reports published, it is also alleged that both in 2012 when the non-UK AOC holder was awarded the contract, and again in 2015 when they were replaced, very short notice mobilisation occurred with a high degree of secrecy. In the Editorial of Feedback 116 CHIRP Chief Executive Ian Dugmore comments:
There has to be a better way.
He goes on to say:
The operator’s creditable efforts to mitigate the risks by encouraging pilots to stand themselves down if they felt unduly stressed were partially offset by pilots’ concerns that demonstrating weakness, particularly mental weakness, could jeopardise future employment prospects.
It is not enough to tell pilots that they should not report to work if they are not mentally focussed or stressed. A way must be found to generate the conditions in which pilots can do what they know to be correct without fear of long term disadvantage.
CHIRP then goes on to draw parallels with the attention on mental health since the loss of Germanwings Airbus A320 D-AIPX in the French Alps on 24 March 2015. After that accident we discussed the challenges of psychological screening of flight crew and the low rate of self-reporting of mental health issues.
UPDATE 13 March 2016: The Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA) report, issued to day into the Germanwings accident, does examine the difficulties in self declaring issues that could affect employment. See: Germanwings: Psychiatry, Suicide and Safety
Having received these confidential reports CHIRP raised the matter with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who in turn contacted the National Aviation Authority of the AOC Holder in question.
CHIRP report on one piece of reassuring evidence, that there had been no increase in ‘Level 1’ Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) alerts during the period. It is not stated if CHIRP or the UK CAA made contact with the oil company in question. CHIRP go on to say that:
Nonetheless, recognising the conflict between normal commercial pressures that affect almost all elements of industry and safety concerns associated with changes of contract, the CAA decided that this is an issue that will be taken up for discussion with industry in the CAA-led Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group (OHSAG).
Aerossurance has previously summarised the minutes of the last OHSAG to be published (minutes of the most recent October 2015 meeting have not yet been made public). UPDATE 13 December 2015: UK OHSAG Oct 2015 Minutes (though no discussion on the CHIRP report is minuted).
…it is noteworthy that the dynamics of offshore operations have changed as a result of the lowering of oil prices. There is a ‘production versus protection’ conflict built into the aviation industry which currently leads to great concern over employment prospects in operators providing helicopter support. There have always been swings between shortages and surpluses of people but the current situation appears to be particularly severe with reduced employment opportunities with other contractors.
In these difficult circumstances we note the professionalism of the flight crews and engineers who ‘kept the show on the road’ during the rundown period to the end of the subject contract.
Advice on Contracting
Frequent changes of contractor are more likely when helicopter transport is seen as a commodity.
This is a highly unwise contracting approach because offshore helicopter operations are not only highly safety critical but are also a major influence on offshore workforce morale and on the timely completion of offshore projects.
Customers who develop a reputation for terminating contracts early for their convenience will find it more difficult to contract for brand new aircraft as operators will be reluctant to invest when they don’t trust their customer.
In fact short term attempts to reduce price and a lack of trust may also result in helicopter operators actually bidding higher rates to that potential customer in future as they factor in the risk of contract termination.
We would always advise that building a long term and effective relationship with a carefully selected, high quality air operator is the best contracting approach.
Background – Offshore Helicopter Commercial Matters and Safety
The issue of commercial pressure on offshore helicopter operators was briefly discussed and dismissed in the UK CAA ‘Safety Review of Offshore Public Transport Helicopter Operations in Support of the Exploitation of Oil and Gas’ (CAP1145).
The issue was retuned to by House of Commons Transport Committee in its Second Report of Session 2014–15 on Offshore Helicopter Safety (report HC 289). That committee called for a Public Inquiry. They stated:
The CAA review did not look in sufficient detail at two key areas…[one being]… the offshore industry’s highly competitive environment. Commercial sensitivities ensure that it is difficult for external reviews to examine the contractual obligations set by industry.
UPDATE 5 January 2017: Poor communication sends oil worker morale plummeting, chaplain says. Oil and Gas Chaplin Rev Gordon Craig commented on the “tremendous human impact” of large-scale job losses amongst workers in the oil and gas industry:
People are very resilient. But one of the hardest things to deal with is uncertainty, not knowing what is going to happen to them and their families. This causes stress and they all feel that stress.
I have seen excellent examples of companies engaging with their people and doing everything to give them as much information as they possibly can. Their people feel valued and it helps build trust.
But I have seen examples where that doesn’t happen. Employees then tend to feel they are just numbers on the sheet and not a person.
In an interview with Energy Voice Craig said managers were not heartless and every company he encountered did care about their staff.
What’s actually happening is that their communication is not done effectively. Of course, a lot of HR departments have been cut back as well. Sometimes people offshore don’t see these issues.
UPDATE 18 March 2017: Discussing mental health issues from a military pilot perspective: When Good Pilots Go Bad
Meanwhile for practical information on on Setting Up and Running a Pilot Support programme, Core Aviation Psychology will be holding a workshop on Wednesday 12 April 2017 from 10.00 to 16.00 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Aberdeen Airport.
UPDATE 24 May 2017: Schedule pressure from a different oil and gas customer contributed to a serious incident with an offshore helicopter in Australia: Strictly Scheduled: S-92A Start-Up Incident
UPDATE 26 May 2018: Pilot mental health care still facing ‘normalisation’ barriers said speakers at an RAeS conference on aircrew mental health, held in London on 24 May 2018.
UPDATE 21 March 2023: Sleepwalking into a Crisis
Background – CHIRP
We recently reported on the results of the CHIRP Independent Review in an article that gives background on CHIRP.
Aerossurance has also reported on a CHIRP discussion in sea state forecasting for offshore helicopter operations.
Aerossurance is pleased to be sponsoring and attending the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors’ (CIEHF) Human Factors in Aviation Safety Conference that takes place at the Radison Blu Hotel, East Midlands Airport, 9-10 November 2015.
UPDATE 10 January 2017: Aerossurance is also pleased to sponsor the 2017 European Society of Air Safety Investigators (ESASI) 8th Regional Seminar in Ljubljana, Slovenia on 19 and 20 April 2017. Registration is just €100 per delegate. To register for the seminar please follow this link. ESASI is the European chapter of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI).