New UK helicopter safety framework questioned by Norwegian unions

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Media captionTrade unions in Norway say replicating their model for helicopter safety will not work in the UK unless more powers are given to workers

Trade unions in Norway have said replicating their model for offshore helicopter safety will not work in the UK unless more powers are given to workers.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority is bringing in a number of changes.

These move it closer to the Norwegian safety regime, where operators, unions and regulators debate safety issues equally.

It comes in response to a series of crashes in the North Sea.

The latest off Shetland last August saw four people die.

At Stavanger Airport, there is a near constant buzz of helicopters and those travelling through the heliport operate in a safety regime which is decades old.

'Paradigmatical shift'

Just as the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster in 1988 changed the UK industry, the capsizing of the Alexander Keilland rig in 1980, which left 123 workers dead, set a new tone in Norway.

Prof Ole Andreas Engen, from the University of Stavanger, said: "You got an establishment of a totally new regime.

"You may say a paradigmatical shift from in 1980, a turning point in 1980 which more or less made up the ground rules of how to regulate safety on the Norwegian sector."

Compared with the UK, Norway's political system leans more towards social democracy, which means that the unions never lost their strength.

What was introduced in the 1980s was a system where all parties had to agree on safety measures before they could be introduced.

Prof Enger added: "One of the things that I think works fairly well is the tripartite system where you can negotiate and find common solutions which you agree upon and I think that is a tremendous and powerful instrument in order to improve safety."

Although oil does not dominate the city the way it does in Aberdeen, it does remain prominent in the thoughts of MPs.

Image caption Oil is prominent in the Stavanger mindset

Geir Helge Hamre, head of helicopter safety for the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority, said: "The politicians are interested and they back everything that we do.

"Also, the oil companies of course are very interested. They don't want to lose any people so they are willing to pay what it costs to get this extra safety."

A forum for safety is being set up in the UK, led by the CAA.

It looks similar to the Norwegian tripartite model but in Norway the forum is grounded in law.

Roy Erling Furre, from the Safe union, said: "If the companies on their own should decide everything then the regulations are goal setting and would be relied too much on trust to do good solutions.

"You need unions to put demands up that put us in the right direction.

"Our regulations are built on active unions and strong safety delegates so only copying the regulations would not work.

"You have to make a solid tripartite work first before you can change the regulations."

'Common ground'

The RMT offshore union in Aberdeen believes the new UK forum is already producing results.

It is credited with delaying the introduction of passenger restrictions which, it was argued, threatened a regular maintenance programme carried out over the summer.

Andreas Saetre, from the Norwegian pilots union, believes companies there do want to hear about issues.

He said: "If there's a problem in the industry and a pilot has a solution or the oil company or the operator, it might be from a different point of view but you work together, you debate it and you might find a common ground."

"We come with new points of view they might not have discovered themselves as we're on the ground level doing the everyday work."

The unions in Norway say dealings are not always harmonious but are generally carried out in a tone of mutual respect.

But they say the legally-bound safety framework is good for them and they would not want it to change.

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