It can save the wearer’s life if they fall in the sea, and nobody is allowed on the NCS without one. But it took a disaster for the survival suit to be made mandatory in Norway’s offshore sector.
Suited for safety
High-tech and specially tailored safety garments have been developed for Arctic conditions today, yet the position was very different in the early years of Norwegian oil history.
When the Alexander L Kielland accommodation rig (flotel) overturned at the Edda platform in the North Sea on 27 March 1980, only a few of the 212 people on board had a survival suit.
The permanent rig crew were among them, along with some of the residents from other companies – but many of these had left the suits at their workplace on the platform.
In the chaos which occurred when the flotel first began to turn turtle, a mere eight people managed to don their suits. Four were saved, while the others were among the 123 who died.
“Before survival suits appeared on the market, all you had in the event of an accident was a boiler suit and a lifejacket,” says Terje Gorm Hansen, chief executive of Hansen Protection in Moss.
Formerly part of the Helly Hansen group, this factory south-east of Oslo has been producing survival suits since the mid-1970s. And progress has been huge.
“Among our earliest products was a two-piece wet suit in neoprene,” says Hansen. “It protected against the first cold shock on hitting the water, but wouldn’t keep you warm for long.
“Then came the dry suit. We began developing it in 1976, with the fishing fleet as our first market. It provided some thermal protection, and kept you warm for two hours in cold water.”
The oil companies also eventually became aware of the survival suit. Several deaths among people who fell into the sea focused attention on preparedness for such incidents.
“To start with, they preferred to have their own corporate livery on the suits,” recalls Hansen. “I remember we turned them out in blue, red and black.
“Little existed in the way of regulations in those days. Far less attention was paid to safety than today. But the Kielland disaster changed everything.”
A possible requirement to wear survival suits had been under discussion even before the flotel overturned, based on offshore accidents involving helicopters.
Thirty-four people died in such incidents on the NCS during the five years from 1973 to 1978, starting with a Sikorsky S61N which lost its tail rotor on the way to Ekofisk on 9 June.
This machine made an emergency landing on the sea and then overturned. All 17 people on board escaped, but four drowned or died of hypothermia before rescuers arrived an hour later.
Four years later, on 23 November 1977, another Sikorsky crashed on the way to Ekofisk with the loss of all 12 people on board.
One survivor wearing a lifejacket over an ordinary dark suit was observed in the sea, but efforts to save him proved fruitless.
It became mandatory after this accident to fit an emergency beacon on helicopters, but no obligation was imposed for people to wear survival suits during flights over the sea.
A third Sikorsky carrying 18 people crashed in the North Sea on 26 June, this time on its way to Statfjord A. Once again, all those on board were killed.
This accident led to an extensive debate on helicopter safety, including mandatory use of survival suits. An official study in 1979 concluded that, despite the crashes, helicopters were the best way of transporting North Sea personnel.
The report discussed whether survival suits should become compulsory. A counter-argument was that their buoyancy could hamper evacuation if an overturned machine was sinking.
“It was not until after the Kielland disaster that these garments became mandatory,” confirms historian Trude Meland at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger.
This happened in the autumn of 1980, six months after the flotel sank, when the Norwegian Maritime Directorate ordered everyone on a mobile unit to be provided with a suit. The same requirement was imposed for fixed installations.
Published in 1981, the official Norwegian inquiry report into the Kielland disaster had the following to say:
“The commission is aware that it will now be a requirement for each person to have a personal survival suit, which must also be worn during transport to and from the platform. The commission agrees that the survival suit is made obligatory rescue equipment on a platform.
“Given the sea temperatures prevailing on the NCS, people who accidentally end up in the sea for one reason or another will not escape with their lives without a survival suit unless they are recovered from the sea very quickly.
“A survival suit significantly extends the time people can stay in the sea. In the present case, a man in a survival suit was rescued alive from the sea about two and a half hours after the accident. Without that garment, he would certainly not have survived such a lengthy time in the sea.”
Survival suits have been steadily improved over the decades since they became mandatory. Extra functions have been added to meet constant new requirements and guidelines from the industry.
The Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF – now the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association) published guidelines on area emergency preparedness in 2000.
These introduced further requirements related to rescuing people from the sea in the event of helicopter accidents or evacuation from a facility.
Work on these recommendations revealed that the suits used until then would not properly protect someone in the sea. Deficiencies included poor sealing and lack of spray protection.
That prompted the OLF to introduce new specifications for such garments.
The industry’s commitment in this area has been praiseworthy, says special adviser Bryn Aril Kalberg in the PSA’s logistics and emergency preparedness discipline area.
“Survival suits are an important component of preparedness in the petroleum sector and a key part of protection for the individual offshore worker,” he says.
After many years of monitoring the industry’s efforts with these garments, he says: “It’s done good work here. The quality of the suits is crucial for the prospects of surviving an accident.”
A new and improved type of suit was ready in 2007. This featured a number of upgraded capabilities – including a much greater ability to insulate the wearer.
While earlier models provided little or no insulating capacity, the redesigned garments are able both to cool and warm their user.
A phase-change material in the fabric, comprising small capsules of paraffin wax, makes it possible to store surplus heat from the body in the suit itself.
If an accident happens and the wearer ends up in the sea, this stored warmth could be returned to them.
All in all, indeed, today’s suits have very different properties than those available in the 1980s – not least better sealing and protection against water intrusion.
Other advances include respiration systems for underwater evacuation, an anti-spray hood to protect the face, and advanced personal emergency beacons.
The last of these operate both on the international 121.5 megahertz emergency frequency and with automatic identification systems (AIS) via the satellite-based US GPS and its Russian Glonass counterpart.
A survival suit specially tailored for the Barents Sea has also been developed through a three-year collaboration between Hansen Protection, the Sintef research foundation and operator Eni Norge.
This recent innovation has been optimised for climate and other natural conditions found in the northernmost part of the NCS.
Its creation relates to Eni Norge’s development of the Goliat oil field off western Finnmark county, which incorporates the northernmost staffed production platform off Norway.
The new suit is now being worn by everyone travelling offshore from Hammerfest.
Today’s survival suits are better than they have ever been, believes Roy Erling Furre, second deputy leader of the Norwegian Union of Energy Workers (Safe).
“I’ve personally tried most of the models both on a helicopter and in the sea,” he explains. “Today’s types unquestionably protect well against both hypothermia and drowning.
“As we move further into the Barents Sea, however, we must accept that even more improvements may have to be made to these garments.”
As a representative for several thousand offshore workers and a survivor of a notorious passenger-ferry wreck in 1999, he is among those who have followed the development of survival suits most closely over the past 20 years.
Sources: Ptil.no, Norsk oljehistorie, Norwegian Petroleum Museum, Norwegian official reports and White Papers