It’s time to open up about enclosed spaces

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 15 November 2018


“The shipping industry has produced a wealth of rules, procedures, guidelines, leaflets etc concerned with the risks of working in enclosed spaces aboard vessels and yet seafarers are still dying while engaged in these activities.”

That is what Capt Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of the ship management organisation InterManager said last week during the Crew Connect conference in Manila last week and he is right. Why does it keep happening? You tell me. And please do: there is a link to my email at the bottom of these remarks.

I edited the magazine Safety at Sea some years ago and saw great improvements in some aspects of safety during my tenure. Voyage data recorders, AIS, satellite broadband and ECDIS all arrived on the scene or were dramatically improved while I was reporting on safety matters. Each of them has had a lasting impact on operational safety.


But I had three constant frustrations. First, that it usually required a major accident to initiate an improvement in safety. Second, that despite improvements in on-load release hooks, seafarers still die during lifeboat drills. And third, that seafarers continue to climb into enclosed spaces and come out on a stretcher. I still have those same frustrations.

I can’t address all three today, but Capt Szymanski’s comments aroused my frustrations over enclosed spaces. As he told the conference, “the shipping industry has produced a wealth of rules, procedures, guidelines, leaflets etc concerned with the risks of working in enclosed spaces aboard vessels and yet seafarers are still dying while engaged in these activities.”

I was not in Manila to gauge the immediate reaction to his remarks but I contacted a few people this week who I thought would share my concern about this needless slaughter. One was Andrew Linington, director of campaigns and communications at the seafarers union Nautilus International. Among other things, he edits the union’s excellent publication, Telegraph and told me on Monday (12 November): “As a sign of the shocking frequency of these events, I wrote a story about one fatality a fortnight ago and have just had sad news today of three more deaths on a ship off Japan.”

Now, InterManager has turned the tables: “We want to hear from the seafarers themselves to find out why fatal mistakes are still being made,” Kuba told the conference. “Are we missing a trick here? Is there something we haven’t taken into consideration?” He said that this campaign “puts seafarers in the driving seat and allows them to take charge of this risk to their lives.”

I applaud InterManager’s initiative. I find it hard to believe that no-one has asked seafarers what would prevent them from risking their lives in this way but, if they have, I have never heard about it.

If there is one person who has done more than anyone to bring the dangers of enclosed spaces to the industry’s attention it is Capt Michael Lloyd. He has pioneered rescue techniques and training, working in particular with a UK organisation, Mines Rescue. The difficulties of recovering a casualty from a mine and from the double bottom of a ship are are strikingly similar.

I value his opinion on this topic and he told me this week that he made many visits to ships and shipowners over a three year period, ending two years ago, and found that the crewmembers were well aware of the dangers of enclosed spaces. The problem was with their leadership, which depended on their captains, “of whom about 25% were interested [in enclosed space safety] and, of those, only about 5% had the confidence to approach their companies regarding the provision of equipment and training.”

His summary of what he saw was damning: “Not one ship we visited had followed the IMO recommendation to inspect and categorise their spaces as to degree of danger and difficulties to enter and rescue,” he said. Why? Because their ISM documentation did not mention it. “There is now a tendency to regard the ISM [documents] as a Bible, taking away all initiative from the captains,” he said. This leads them to take the view that, “if the company ISM does not require it, don’t do it.”

What about the shore staff he met? Capt Lloyd was not impressed with them, either. Middle managers “were well aware of the problem but claimed that it was not they who were blocking progress in dealing with the problem but the senior management.” And those senior managers “were rarely available to meet with us,” Capt Lloyd said.

So he places much of the responsibility for the problem with management. Compared with his seafaring days, “the gap between ship and shore is now huge in comparison with the past. It would seem that this goes to the heart of InterManager’s problem,” he said.

I am not a seafarer. Never have been. My time in the industry was as a naval architect, making me the least popular person on board during my few ship visits. So I am not in a position to comment on Capt Lloyd’s observations, but in their light I can see that InterManager’s plan relies on gaining the confidence of seafarers to take part.

If a seafarer wants to get involved in this fact-finding mission – and I hope as many as possible will do so – how can they communicate their views, especially if – like Capt Lloyd – they think the problem is in the management office? “We want to know what approach those facing these risks think should be taken,” Capt Szymanski said in Manila. “Please tell us what you think is the best solution? Is there a simple, user friendly procedure, change or technology gadget which would be universally beneficial for colleagues working in enclosed spaces?” Will seafarers say what they really think, via their head office?

I asked him how this could be done and his reply was positive. “We have engaged our members and their communication channels – ships are sending their responses to me directly or via their HSEQ [health, safety, environment and quality] departments,” he said. I am not sure how seafarers will be given Capt Szymanski’s direct contact details but, if that is being done, it means that critical feedback can bypass senior management.

He also held a series of meetings with P&I clubs and other organisations while he was in Manila and told me that his message was well received “and people promised to assist”. He said he “would love to see as many organisations as possible getting involved; the more than merrier” and that his dream is “to reach to every seafarer, so they could be given a chance to tell the whole world what they actually think about enclosed space entries.”

As for his own members, they were told of this initiative 45 days before last week’s presentation and already there has been “a great response”, he said. “We are now going wider, involving other trade organisations.”

P&I clubs in particular have an interest in supporting this initiative and I contacted one of the leading clubs this week but had not had any comment by the time I had to put my fingers to the keyboard. There is no shortage of advice and information available from them and the Nautical Institute’s website has a collection of P&I bulletins about enclosed spaces on its website.

The institute’s members are deck officers and I asked its director of projects, David Patraiko, what his response was to last week’s presentation. “We’re happy to support InterManager and the industry in this new initiative,” he said, but I also sensed some frustration over previous attempts to tackle the problem. “We have also been concerned about this issue for many years and have sought to highlight it frequently,” he said, through its magazine, Seaways, its confidential Mariners’ Alerting and Reporting Scheme and at IMO.

He mentioned a series of institute branch workshops a few years ago that highlighted how the use of modern equipment and procedures developed for mine rescues could be adapted to ships. He also recalled issuing a challenge to industry “as to why mariners were routinely expected to enter spaces on ships that would be illegal to enter ashore due to HSE criteria.”

And what happened? “Although I think a number of companies may have taken some of these improvements onboard on a volunteer basis, I don’t recall that we made any progress on a larger scale.”

Back at Nautilus International, Andrew Linington said that, although it is not directly involved in the initiative, the union fully supports InterManager’s initiative “to seek fresh ideas for addressing the problem.” It has given its members a contact point to contribute any ideas, so that’s another welcome confidential reporting channel.

But, like Mr Patraiko, he also recalled previous initiatives. “Over the years, we have taken forward issues such as training, education and the mandatory carriage of oxygen meters, as well as the provision of suitable rescue equipment,” he said. Nonetheless, “anything that can be done to encourage fresh thinking and new ideas is very welcome.”

Encouragement comes in many forms and InterManager is offering a prize of a MacBook Air laptop computer in return for the best response received, coupled with US$2,000 for the winner’s ship’s welfare fund. “We want to know what you believe is the best response to take when working in enclosed spaces – the approach you feel will make a real difference,” Capt Szymanski said in a statement about the scheme.

There is a deadline of 1 January 2019 for seafarers to submit their feedback, which will be considered by a committee made up from representatives of InterManager members with experience of HSEQ matters, with a view to producing industry guidelines and sharing best practice.

I wish InterManager every success with this, but I hope its members will accept that implementing their findings may be a two-way process. There is no mandatory requirement, for example, to provide training in rescuing people from enclosed spaces. Will they agree to providing that, and costs that will go with it, if crew say they need it? Will they amend their ISM documents so that their captains are motivated to devote time and effort to enclosed space concerns on board?

I hope that this project might, at last, begin to turn the tide of the unnecessary loss of life on ships, along with the misery each one brings to families and friends for years afterwards. That will depend on what InterManager’s members do with the conclusions its representatives form.

Without the force of legislation, will shipowners and managers accept the extra cost that might come from any of their committee’s proposals? I am not sure that they will. So this must be taken to IMO, where InterManager could lobby member states to establish legislation on equipment and training for working in enclosed spaces. As a first step, they could call an international conference to expose their findings to a wide audience and build some momentum for change. Capt Lloyd said to me that, despite all that has been done so far, “crew are still dying with a regularity that would not be tolerated in any other industry.” It will take more than InterManager’s survey to change that, but it can be a catalyst for change. Then I will only have two frustrations to worry about.

Are you involved in this project? How do you think the risks posed by enclosed spaces can be tackled? Email me by clicking here.

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