Four areas that regularly feature as the causes of accidents on board ships

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

11 April 2018


Several years of operation of the International Safety Management Code or ISM appears to have improved the culture around safety onboard to the point where the number of lives lost at sea according to IMO statistics continues to show a downward trend. The figures are not necessarily a fully accurate picture of individual cases because many will not be reported but it is accepted that there is a reduction.

Sadly, the main cause of seafarer deaths – 15% at the last count – is now said to be suicide. Training and drills can obviously help with improving general safety but dealing with suicide and other mental illness on a fleet basis will require operators to seek help from than traditional sources.

With regard to general safety, there are four areas that regularly feature as the causes of accidents on board ships that have led to an official investigation. These are:

  • Mooring and unmooring
  • Working at height
  • Hot work and,
  • Entry into enclosed spaces

Training and drills are the best means of improving safety in these areas and there is no shortage of advice from P&I clubs and training specialists and also from training films that can be used to good advantage in a training regime.

Mooring and unmooring is a regular task and one where safety is learnt rather than managed although experienced hands should not be averse to pointing out risky practices to less experienced staff. The other three main causes of accidents can best be addressed by a permit to work system where a risk identification process is carried out before any work begins.

Medical facilities

Although intended for more day-to-day matters, medical facilities and specialist skills are also likely to be needed when an emergency occurs. Provision of medical facilities on board and the appropriate level will be set by flag states for any above those required under IMO and ILO regulations.

Ships are obliged to carry limited stocks of medicines and equipment and some form of medical guide that can be used for advice in emergencies. The exact details of what must be carried are at the discretion of the flag state. Flag states that do not have national requirements for the contents of the medical chest have in the past relied on a list that has been provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the International Medical Guide for Ships (IMGS). It is not a formal international instrument, but the Guide is noted as a source of information in the non-statutory part of the relevant ILO Convention.

Port State Control Inspectors frequently use the IMGS list as the minimum requirement for medical supplies.
A companion publication to IMGS entitled MEDICAL FIRST AID GUIDE FOR USE IN ACCIDENTS INVOLVING DANGEROUS GOODS (MFAG) is published by the IMO and gives specialist advice for substances considered dangerous goods and included in the IMO’s IMDG Code. The guide contains information on symptoms, treatment and care and is considered an essential requirement on most ships.

Almost every flag will either make mandatory or recommend a general medical guide that should be carried onboard but it is most important that the crew member who is appointed to carry out any medical procedures is able to understand the terminology used in the guide and the language it is written in. For this reason, blind adherence to recommendations of a particular guide that is not available in the appropriate language may satisfy PSC but could prove dangerous in a medical emergency.

Except on passenger vessels and a very few merchant ships, access to a qualified medical practitioner will be very limited. The first aid and limited medical training that is needed under STCW for various ranks is all that most sick and injured crew can expect unless or until the ship is in port or close enough to land for more expert medical assistance to be given. With the advance in marine communications, it is now possible to subscribe to a handful of specialist telemedicine services that give access at any time to the expertise of trained doctors.

Cargo Hazards

The potential for cargoes to create hazardous situations for the ship either because of inherent properties or because of deliberate acts by shippers to circumvent rules is something that has long been recognised.

Understanding that certain cargoes have characteristics that can endanger lives or pose a threat to the ship is something that is both taught and learned through experience. Experience of the threats need not mean having been exposed to them directly but having worked with people that have explained what precautions they are taking and why. Unfortunately, the rapid career progress of many seafarers means that their opportunity to learn through experience can be somewhat limited.

The matter is one that has been recognised by the IMO which has established the Sub-Committee on Carriage of Cargoes and Containers (CCC) which operates under instructions from both the MSC and the MEPC and which has produced several guides and codes many of which are mandatory to follow.

All seagoing personnel with responsibility for cargoes are expected to be aware of the relevant codes, publications and sources of advice and to follow them when carrying such cargoes. Clearly some of the rules and advice will not apply to all ship types. Also of use is the special advice promulgated to members by P&I Clubs and other industry bodies.

Because both the SOLAS and MARPOL Conventions are involved, some of the regulations are concerned more with environmental matters than safety but most of the documents will contain a mix of both and are therefore essential sources of safety advice.

The subject of cargo safety is extremely wide and to cover it comprehensively is beyond the scope of this guide. Cargoes can cause loss of life and ships in many ways. Shifting cargo is cited in many ship losses and while the problems of certain cargoes as regards angles of repose and propensity to shift are well known it seems that in recent years an inordinate number of lives have been lost due to ships capsizing following liquefaction of nickel ore and other similar cargoes.

Container fires and weights

Containerisation has been responsible for a revolution in cargo handling and rapid port turnarounds but the use of containers also has safety implications. Often this is due to shippers deliberately declaring hazardous cargoes as something harmless to avoid paying premium freight rates. In such cases this may mean containers are stowed in inappropriate slots on board.

There appears to be an increasing number cases of hazardous cargoes catching fire or exploding and resulting in the loss of ships and lives. There is an onus on shore staff when booking cargoes to be more vigilant and indeed there is a requirement under IMDG for staff responsible for accepting hazardous cargoes to have undergone training to understand the requirements with regard to packing and separation of such cargoes.

Well trained staff can often identify some cargoes as being hazardous even when the shipper is not aware of the particular hazard involved. For example swimming pool cleaners can contain some highly flammable components and the booking staff must be able to recognise proprietary names for some of the more hazardous types. However, dealing with the issue of deliberate concealment is difficult because inspecting cargoes inside containers is not easy to achieve.

Following a number of container fires on its ships, notable the Maersk Honam in March 2018, Maersk line is considering ways to identify combinations of cargoes, shippers and freight forwarders likely to be connected to containers in areas where fires have started on board ships. If this can be achieved, then spot checks on containers will be made in future in an attempt to determine if cargoes are being deliberately mis-declared.

Another issue with containers is the mis-declaration of weights which has resulted in stowage and stability problems. It is a matter that ship operators have complained about for many years and the IMO has finally taken action and adopted amendments to SOLAS Chapter VI Regulation 2. These have been published as MSC.1/Circ. 1475.

Since 1st July 2016, all packed containers are required to have a verified gross weight (VGW) declared by shippers. The VGW is the certified gross cargo weight (including weight of all packing material) plus container tare weight. The measure has not proved popular with shippers but under the rules containers cannot be loaded onto a vessel unless a certified VGW is provided.