Enclosed space fatalities continue - Standard Club

Apr 09 2021

Maritime insurer The Standard Club says that enclosed space fatalities are continuing to occur on ships, although much more on dry cargo vessels than tankers. A webinar on October 12 reviewed how the issue is evolving.

“We continue seeing enclosed space fatalities onboard ships,” said Capt Yves Vandenborn, director of loss prevention with the Standard Club. “It just keeps happening at a very frequent rate.”


He was speaking at a webinar on October 12 organised by the Standard Club and the International Ship Manager’s Association.


The most recent public data available is from April 2019, when the International Transport Workers Federation announced that since January 2018, 16 dock workers and 12 seafarers had died from asphyxiation or explosions in confined spaces – or from falls after passing out due to bad air. This meant something of a spike, after seeing 145 casualties over the past 20 years (average 7 per year).


ITF did not break out the numbers between different types of ships,  but  Captain Akshat Arora, senior surveyor with The Standard Club, said that it is much more a problem with dry cargo vessels than tankers. We are including this article in Tanker Operator because it remains one of the biggest risks for tanker crew.


“We know that maritime workers are generally aware of the risks associated with entry into confined spaces, but they may not be aware of the details and extent of the varied dangers posed by forest products, coal, iron ore, grains, gases and other cargo,” ITF said.


One of the worst cases was from November 2018, when two dockworkers died while unloading logs from the holder of a bunker, which ITF says was “likely following exposure to an unexpected fumigant they were not told about.”


“A crew member saw them in distress and entered the hold wearing a face mask, determined to rescue them. During his efforts to assist, his mask was reportedly removed, and he passed out, eventually landing in hospital in an induced coma. A third docker required medical help before the tragic incident was over.”


The Standard Club launched a Masters’ guide to Enclosed Space in 2012, and is now on the 3rd edition, available for free download.


IMO made regulations for mandatory drills in 2015, and for gas detection equipment to be onboard from 2016. The ISM code, implemented in 1998, required companies to have proper risk assessments in place.


Conflicting procedures

Captain Kuba Szymanski, secretary general, InterManager, said that the number one reason for enclosed space death was conflicting procedures, according to a survey InterManager sent to seafarers in 2018 which got 5,000 responses.


“Chief engineers and masters say, ‘we are reading one circular, then we read another one, then we have a safety management system which conflicts with another,’”  he said.


“We need to stop confusing people. After every accident there are more circulars. We've got enough.”



A second factor seafarers mentioned in the survey was the poor design of enclosed spaces.


For example, ballast tanks have “sampling points”, for taking a ballast water sample through a tap, but it does not take a sample from the bottom of the tank, so an inspection is required.


If a crack forms in the steel between the cargo tank and neighbouring ballast tank, gas can enter the ballast tank, so it has a non-breathable atmosphere.


To make them even harder to inspect, these ballast tanks  are sometimes designed in an “L” shape, going around the cargo tank.


Another design issue is the size of manholes. If someone collapses, they will need to be taken out of the tank somehow, with both the collapsed person and the rescuer needing breathing apparatus. Or you may need to resuscitate someone using bottled air.


“The manholes are too small to handle human being in breathing apparatus carrying another person,” Captain Szymanski said.


Accident investigations always end up blaming crew – they never conclude that the ship was not designed for enclosed space entry.


If the casualties are continuing, then that shows that the issue is not something just linked to shipboard staff, he said.


Naval architects could also make ship designs where the enclosed spaces do not require as much inspection, he said.


Captain Szymanski served until recently as chair of an enclosed spaces sub-committee of the IMO’s Human Element Industry Group (HEIG). The group has involvement from many engineers and designers.


It is calling for more human centric design, and accident investigation with people in mind, and a stop to blaming people.


In the airline sector, where just one safety problem on one or two planes (Boeing 737 MAX) led to the fleet of 737 Maxes being grounded. “I'm not necessarily advocating for that, but why do we need hundreds of accidents before we start thinking, ‘is there something wrong with these spaces,’” he said.


Personnel issues

A contributing issue is that very often, people working onboard do not know each other well.


This means that other crew members may not feel comfortable telling someone they don’t know to stop doing a task because it may be dangerous.


Someone new may also try to impress colleagues by being willing to take on tasks which other people think are too dangerous.


The tanker sector does ensure that someone new coming onboard is surrounded by well experienced people, through OCIMF’s “time in rank” requirements, but other types of ships do not have the same requirements, Captain Szymanski said.


There should instead be a culture of people helping each other to do better work and support them, he said.


Gas detection equipment

IMO regulations (SOLAS Regulation XI-1/7) came into force in July 2016, stating that every ship needs to carry portable atmosphere testing equipment, which can as a minimum measure concentrations of oxygen, flammable gases, hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide, prior to enter into enclosed spaces, and while the work is being done.


It stated that if the spaces have additional atmospheric hazards, appropriate instruments should be carried. Personal gas detectors, carried by an individual, are not considered suitable. It must have 10 hours battery life, and be waterproof and dustproof.


The regulation does not state how many devices must be onboard, but says there should be an appropriate number of instruments.


Captain Szymanski said that he often goes onboard ships and asks about the gas detection equipment, and sees that while all companies buy the gas detection equipment, sometimes they expect crew to never use it, keeping it available for inspection only. “It is in a special suitcase. There is also a blanket to cover the equipment, it says ‘do not touch’. People don't feel it is for them.”


“When you go to social media, people would tell you, there is a lot of poor managers around the world - and they are basically doing the bare minimum IMO requirements.


“A good auditor can easily detect whether equipment has been used or not,” he said. “If you see it has no mud, no scratch on it, it looks brand new, you can say, ‘you have 28 ballast tanks, when did you use last time?’”


Then a good auditor should be careful not to blame crew if they find out it hasn’t been used, he said.


Captain Akshat Arora, senior surveyor with The Standard Club, said that there have been situations where a ship has had risks of dangerous atmospheres which their equipment could not detect, such as one case when a dry cargo was fumigated with phosphene. In this situation, crew have resorted to extreme approaches, including using live rats and chickens as gas detectors, he said.



Captain Szymanski said that while the ship manager is responsible for safe operations of the ship under the ISM code, some responsibility should be taken by the charterer, if they are loading cargoes on a vessel without determining if the vessel is capable of safely accepting it.


Seafarers are expected to say if they feel they are being asked to do something unsafe, but they are unlikely to feel comfortable doing this. They may fear they will never get a contract with this company again.


When investigating accidents, this should be taken into consideration, rather than just blaming the crewmember, he said.


Shipping companies should consider carefully when they make an order for crew to go in a tank, what can go wrong, and how they might be responsible.


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