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Helicopter squeeze as oilmen grow too fat to fly

The Times (UK): Helicopter squeeze as oilmen grow too fat to fly

“The worst helicopter crash was in November 1986 when a Chinook carrying Shell workers plummeted into the sea off the coast of Shetland in stormy weather. Some 45 people were killed.”

Wednesday 31 August 2005

By David Lister, Scotland Correspondent

IT IS not quite time to start reinforcing rigs, but oil workers are becoming so fat that fewer will be allowed into the helicopters that take them out to their offshore platforms.

The image of oil workers as lean, hard-working “roughnecks” was dealt a blow yesterday after the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) confirmed that it was issuing new passenger weight allocations for offshore helicopters.

Although most oil platforms now provide a range of healthy meals and some even offer aerobics classes, the CAA said that it had been forced to issue the new requirements after a survey found evidence of expanding offshore waistlines.

“People are getting heavier,” a spokesman said. “For all aircraft there is a notional weight per passenger set by us so that weight calculations can be done. A survey was done pretty recently of the passengers on these offshore flights and it was discovered that they had actually got heavier.”

From tomorrow, helicopters carrying the 20,000 oil workers to Britain’s offshore platforms will perform their calculations on a notional weight per passenger of 98 kilograms (15st 6lb) for a man and 77 kilograms (12st) for a woman.

The last time allocations were set was in the late 1980s, when the average male weight was calculated at 89 kilograms (14st) for a male and 77 kilograms (12st) for a female. Based on those figures, getting up to 19 passengers a time into a helicopter has become an increasingly tight squeeze.

The changes mean that it will take fewer passengers to reach the weight limit, forcing oil companies to spend more money laying on extra flights.

Despite the evidence that offshore workers were getting heavier, Jake Molloy, general secretary of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, a trade union representing 7,000 employees, angrily rejected suggestions that they were “living the good life”. Offshore workers have an average age of 49 and are predominantly men.

“It’s simply nonsense to say that oil workers are getting fat and I’m appalled at some of the comments that have been made,” Mr Molloy said. “I wish some of the people making them could spend some time offshore. It’s exhausting, mentally and physically, and arduous work that does anything but lend itself to obesity.

“The menus have been altered on the vast majority of installations to comply with all these awards for healthy eating options. There are all sorts of competitions in the gyms and some are running aerobics classes. There are even some installations now where cooked breakfast isn’t available, only fruit and cereals, and where the meals are focused on fish and high-protein diets. It’s a demanding job out there. You’re up and down stairs all day; you just don’t get the chance to lie around and become fat.”

A spokeswoman for the UK Offshore Operators Association said workers had regular medicals at which their weight was monitored. These took place every three years for the under-40s, every two years for over-40 and annually for the over-50s. The spokeswoman said: “I can confirm that we know all about the new rules but we don’t know yet what the impact will be across the industry because the changes are currently being discussed. It could mean that on certain flights one, possibly two people, might have to take another flight.

“I would suspect this is just a general trend, and not just offshore oil workers. I’ve certainly never seen a deep-fried Mars bar on the menu of any rig.”

A spokesman for BP agreed. “I don’t think you’ll find any deep-fried Mars bars. Most platforms have got gyms and areas where people can get fit. As for the menus, there’s quite a lot of effort put into people to encourage them to eat healthily and to have a varied and healthy diet.”

The heliport most affected by the changes will be Aberdeen airport. It is the world’s busiest heliport, flying some 33,908 people by helicopter last year, most of them to North Sea oil installations.

THE FLY LIFE

There are just under 19,000 workers on around 200 offshore installations off the UK coast, producing a total of 3.6 million barrels of oil and gas per day.

Until the first Wessex helicopters started to fly workers out to the rigs in the 1960s, most workers were taken out in supply vessels or converted trawlers and transferred on to the installations by basket.

The platform closest to the mainland is just 12 miles out, a journey by helicopter of less than 15 minutes. The farthest is 130 miles northeast of Shetland, about 300 miles off the Scottish mainland.

The worst helicopter crash was in November 1986 when a Chinook carrying Shell workers plummeted into the sea off the coast of Shetland in stormy weather. Some 45 people were killed.

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