Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Disaster-driven offshore safety: "People have to die before things are taken seriously"

I posed the following questions to Lana Payne, Atlantic Director of Unifor, on Monday, Dec. 9th, before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources, which is holding hearings on Bill C-5 (Offshore Health and Safety Act). 

Mr. Ryan Cleary (St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NDP): Thank you, Mr. Chair.

And thank you to the witnesses.

My questions are for Ms. Payne.

Ms. Payne, Justice Robert Wells appeared before this committee last week, and one of the questions I asked him was whether the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board or the Canada-Nova Scotia Petroleum Board could be in a potential conflict of interest, because they're responsible for overseeing the environment, industry regulation and health and safety.

His exact response was, “It could”.

You also mentioned in your presentation a potential conflict. I want you to comment on that. But also I've got a part (b) to this question.

In recommendation 29 from Justice Wells' report, part (a) is very well-known in terms of an independent offshore safety regulator, but there's also part (b).

Part (b) talks about the creation of “...a separate and autonomous Safety Division of C-NLOPB, with a separate budget, separate eadership, and an organizational structure designed to deal only with safety matters”.

To the question: are you satisfied that (a) or (b) has been followed through on in recommendation 29?

Ms. Lana Payne: No, (b) would be better than nothing, but (a) should be the standard we're trying to reach.

If you look at even the C-NLOPB's organizational chart as it still stands on their website, it's very clear that the safety officer is under the CEO.

I'll use an example of why I think this is problematic.

In the annual report following the crash of 2009 the then-CEO of the offshore oil regulator — this is after we had this horrific loss of life — his message in that report was about how well industry was doing; that it was a banner year economically in Newfoundland and Labrador.

It was also a year in which people died in a crash and yet that was secondary in his message in this annual report.

I think that says it all about when you have production and economic decisions and safety under the same roof with the same people making the same decisions.

I firmly believe, as in Australia, the U.K. and Norway, that these must be separated.

This is a very long discussion that we've been having since Justice Cullen and yet in Canada we still have not done this.

Mr. Ryan Cleary: Another question, Ms. Payne, you mentioned the July 2011 incident and the severity of that incident wasn't reported for two years.

The helicopter went down and it came within 38 ft. of crashing into the water, and I believe it fell 152 metres in 32 seconds.

What would have been different if that incident happened at night and this has to do with the debate about night flights.

Ms. Lana Payne: There are two things with that and I think this also speaks to why we still have challenges with the regulator.

Neither the regulator nor the oil operators expressed the severity of this incident.

It was a couple of words when it happened: it didn't seem like it was a big deal.

They felt they had done their job by reporting it to the TSB and yet we had just finished a commission of inquiry that said we must be improving communications at all levels; and that still had not occurred.

I'm sorry, what was the rest of that question? Oh yes, the issue of night flights.

At the same time this was happening we have had a helicopter safety committee looking at recommendation 12, which is the mandate that was given to this safety committee, which was not exactly what Commissioner Wells intended in his report.

We are now having a debate in our province about whether or not we should be returning to night flights.

We are opposed to them. We think they are riskier.

We don't think that enough improvements have been made and we're dealing with the helicopter—

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Mr. Ryan Cleary: Ms. Payne, sorry to interrupt, but, again, if that July 2011 incident had happened in the dark, would it have been a different outcome?

Ms. Lana Payne: It would have hit the water, because they wouldn't have been able to see. The only reason that the pilot was able to self-correct was that within just feet of hitting the ocean, suddenly they came out of the fog and he could see that they were 30 ft. from the ocean: at night that would not have occurred.

Mr. Ryan Cleary: When Justice Robert Wells was giving testimony last week, he outlined all the different improvements in the health and safety and equipment aboard these helicopters.

Have advancements been made in the helicopters and in the health and safety equipment aboard these helicopters to make a difference between day flights and night flights, though, since then?

Ms. Lana Payne: We still only have a helicopter that has an 11-minute run dry capability.

To this point of how much you don't need regulation because people should be doing things on their own, we were 10 years trying to get underwater breathing apparatus for the workers.

That was not done until 17 people lost their lives, so it seems to me it ends up being this disaster-driven situation where people have to die before things are taken seriously.

There have been improvements in the offshore.

How could there not have been with the focus and the attention that we have had on offshore safety. Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not.

The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Cleary.

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