Free-Fall Lifeboats Aid North Sea Safety


Strapped into a free-falling lifeboat, it takes a heart-stopping 2.4 seconds to drop 100 feet from a North Sea oil platform before you smack into the water.

Oil firms, alarmed by a death toll of around 500 since North Sea drilling began in the 1960s, are turning more and more to free-fall lifeboats for emergency evacuation.

They are backing them up with such systems as “doughnut” rappelling lines and sock-like chutes.

Norway is making free-fall lifeboats--which look like wedge-shaped submarines--the standard for safety. Trade unions reckon that Norwegian safety standards are the best in the world.


“I’d definitely choose a Norwegian platform as safer than any other,” said Oerjan Bergfloedt, deputy leader of Norway’s Oil Workers’ Collective Union, the biggest offshore union with about 6,000 members.

In the British sector of the North Sea, the Piper B platform, alongside the site of the Piper Alpha, which exploded in 1988 with the loss of 167 lives, will be the first to use free-fall boats, operator EE Caledonia said.

The boats submerge on hitting the water then resurface, the momentum of the fall driving them away from the platform. Britain and Norway are the biggest oil producers in West Europe, pumping about 2 million barrels each a day.

Piper B, coming on stream in June, 1992, will also have “doughnuts"--fire-resistant nylon rappelling lines which workers can clip onto a railing or pipe to slide down to the sea.


“We think this will set a new trend for safety,” said EE Caledonia spokesman Alex Blake Milton. The explosion on the Piper Alpha, operated at the time by Occidental Petroleum Corp., was the world’s worst offshore disaster.

Under Norwegian rules, oil companies have either to fit free-fall boats or prove that their own evacuation plans are equally good--a bridge to another platform could qualify. Platforms also need a backup route to the lifeboats.

North Sea platforms are among the most hostile workplaces in the world. Stuffed with explosive oil and gas, they must be perched high enough to avoid waves whipped up by hurricane-force winds.

Helicopters are often unusable--in a fire, a storm or when gas is leaking. Conventional lifeboats can be dashed by waves against platform legs as they are lowered.


If workers jump overboard in an emergency and survive the fall, they are still likely to perish because the North Sea is too cold for long exposure, even in a survival suit. In offshore drilling areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, platforms are lower and the water is warmer.

Union leader Bergfloedt said a drawback of free-fall lifeboats is that it could take more time to clamber inside the boats, which can hold 70 people.

Also, while makers say free-fall boats work out cheaper than conventional systems, oil firms say converting older platforms to fit them is extremely expensive.

On the Piper Alpha, smoke meant that many workers were unable to reach the lifeboats or died in an explosion before they could board. A survivor who leaped 200 feet into the sea said: “It was a case of fry or die, or jump and try.”


A doughnut, named after the shape of one of its metal parts, costs about $1,000. Doughnuts have been fitted on about 30 platforms in the British sector of the North Sea.

In another innovation, Norway’s Selantic Industrier has supplied Norwegian and British platforms with 39 “Skyscape” evacuation chutes since 1988. The Skyscape is a vertical tube down which workers can slither to a waiting life raft.

He said the chutes--made of Kevlar netting and steel hoops and fitted with compartments to prevent too quick a fall--cost between $268,000 and $302,000.