Understanding the Risk of Helicopters
Oil rig disasters and explosions, such as the Deepwater Horizon incident gain heavy media attention, but helicopter transportation is actually a much more common cause of deaths and injuries aboard oil rigs. According to the CDC, from 2003 to 2010 transportation accidents accounted for 51% of oil rig fatalities, with 75% of those occurring aboard helicopters. In this 7-year period, 49 workers were killed in offshore helicopter accidents.
In fact, the risk of being involved in a helicopter accident is so serious that many major oil companies require accident survival training for workers and visitors headed to their offshore platforms.
Offshore Helicopter Transportation in the Gulf of Mexico
With more than 4,000 oil rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico, helicopters serve an important role in transporting workers, supplies, and other essential needs to offshore rigs. As a faster means of transportation than sea vessels, they are an invaluable aid to the workers and crew who spend months at a time at sea. However, they are also extremely prone to accidents.
Some of the leading causes for helicopter crashes include:
- Dangerous weather conditions
- Pilot error or negligence
- Improper or lack of training
- Mechanical failure
- Lack of maintenance
Curbing Accidents in Hazardous Weather Conditions
Varying weather conditions in the Gulf of Mexico can make flying dangerous. Although the majority of accidents are attributed to pilot error, many of them also list adverse weather conditions as a contributing factor. Rain and gusty winds dramatically increase the risk of crashing, especially when attempting to land on the destination platform. When weather is harsh, it is even more important for crew members and pilots to exercise caution. In recent years, fatal accidents connected to weather conditions have greatly dropped thanks to new technology.
The Issue of Mechanical Failure
Mechanical failure may also be to blame for an offshore helicopter accident. Regular maintenance is imperative to ensure that all instruments, equipment, and mechanisms function properly. If certain safety devices fail to work, it could lead to a devastating crash. It is also important that the destination rig maintains their own safety equipment, such as warning lights and communication devices so that the helicopters can transport their loads safely. Without taking the proper safety measure, even a small issue can lead to a major accident.
Growing Safety Concerns Over Offshore Helicopter Accidents
Recent strings of helicopter crashes around the world have led to new safety measures. Incidents over the last few years include an accident off the coast of Shetland in the U.K., which claimed the lives of four passengers in August 2013, a helicopter transporting workers to a Russian rig off the coast of Ghana which killed three in May 2014, and a crash in Nigeria that killed six people.
According to data from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), from 1983 to 2009, 139 people have died in helicopter crashes in the oil and gas industry alone. Reports show that the risk for getting killed while on the job is seven times higher for offshore workers—and the most dangerous part is getting to work. While the Federal Aviation Administration has certain rules in place, many are encouraging the oil and gas industry to adopt more stringent safety requirements to prevent further helicopter accidents.
Though safety measures such as underwater air systems, enhanced flotation devices, and bigger windows for passengers to escape from in a crash continue to improve the safety of flights, this transportation method continues to carry a high risk of danger for both pilots and passengers, especially in a maritime setting.