General safety on board

Updated 11 Oct 2019


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 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.

It might be hoped that deaths and injuries could be all but eliminated but unfortunately there are reasons why this is not happening. Some of those lie with seafarers themselves and some with the operators of the ships they are sailing upon.

While some seafarers will have long careers with a single company or ship, many more are happy just to obtain employment on any ship. Building a team spirit and working within and contributing to the development of a safety culture does help many seafarers to think about safety when commencing daily tasks.

For those that move from ship to ship, the safety procedures on any vessel – if they exist – do not come so naturally and seafarers will try to work in the ways that suits them best even if that can cause problems for themselves and others. Such seafarers tend to be self-reliant and sometimes impetuous.

Mental Health

Shipping has long been considered among the most dangerous industries for workers both onboard and those working alongside the ship on shore, such as dock workers and port service personnel. In recent years, the influence of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code 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 has been a reduction. On the downside, some believe that while the number of deaths may show an improvement, some of this could be due to the fact that crew numbers are now much smaller than they used to be.

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 as does adopting best practices but dealing with suicide and other mental illness on a fleet basis will require operators to seek help from other than traditional sources.

The issue of mental health is one that is only just beginning to attract the attention it probably deserves. There are few studies that can point to the main cause of mental health issues, but some have speculated that smaller crew numbers and a lack of team spirit may be one factor. Another factor is the sense of isolation in an increasingly connected world, although some believe that continuous access to family through telecommunications and the internet can also have a negative effect as bad news from home is more easily received.

A small number of official investigations into accidents and incidents at sea has blamed distraction of officers and crew by sudden news from home.


As well as mental health being a problem, so too is fatigue. Fatigue has probably been on the radar for longer than mental health as an issue to be tackled but most would say that too little has been done. The causes of fatigue can be many: long hours and odd shift patterns, smaller crew numbers, increased bureaucratic workloads, shorter port turnaround times meaning longer at sea and little rest. In addition, ease of communication can mean that some seafarers spend more time on smart phones and computers than they do resting.

At MSC 100 in December 2018, the MSC approved revised guidelines on fatigue, which provide comprehensive information on the causes and consequences of fatigue and the risks it poses to the safety and health of seafarers, operational safety, security and protection of the marine environment. The aim is to assist all stakeholders to contribute to the mitigation and management of fatigue.

IMO has considered the issue of fatigue for several decades, adopting Assembly resolution A.772(18), Fatigue Factors in Manning and Safety, in 1993. This was followed by the development of comprehensive guidance on fatigue mitigation and management (MSC/Circ.1014), which was issued in 2001. The guidelines have been thoroughly reviewed and updated by the Sub-Committee on Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping (HTW 5), taking into account the latest research studies.

While it has taken nearly two decades to update the guidelines on fatigue, they are still guidelines and some are sceptical of them being widely applied across the industry.

Medical advice & 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. Most cargo ships have a small space set aside for medical treatment and some may have quite well-equipped sick rooms. Passenger vessels and offshore ships that have large numbers of personnel and guests onboard will likely have to have a dedicated hospital facility and most flag states stipulate that above a certain number of persons onboard, a qualified medical practitioner must be employed.

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 requirements 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 small number of specialist telemedicine services that give access at any time to the expertise of trained doctors.

Cargo hazards and safety factors

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 who have explained what precautions they are taking and why.

Unfortunately, the rapid career progress of many seafarers means that their opportunities 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.

Last year (2018) the IMO issued a new edition of the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes Code (IMSBC Code) listing almost 400 solid bulk materials and providing information on specific hazards they may present and the precautions to be observed. Where a cargo is not listed in the IMSBC Code, the shipper must obtain a certificate setting out the conditions under which it may be shipped from the competent authority of the port of loading. There is also an onus on shippers who must now provide the master with the Shipper’s Form for Cargo Information declaring details of any special properties of the cargo that the master needs to know so as to implement the precautions required for its safe shipment.

This was a timely development given that 2018 was the worst in over 20 years in terms of numbers of seafarers and shore personnel who had died while handling solid bulk cargoes.

As well as the new IMSBC Code, at MSC 100 the IMO approved draft amendments to the International Code for the Construction and Equipment of Ships carrying Dangerous Chemicals in Bulk (IBC Code), with a view to subsequent adoption. The draft amendments include draft revised chapters 17 (Summary of minimum requirements), 18 (List of products to which the code does not apply), 19 (Index of products carried in bulk) and 21 (Criteria for assigning carriage requirements for products subject to the IBC Code), as well as draft new paragraph 15.15 (Hydrogen sulphide (H2S) detection equipment for bulk liquids).

Further amendments are consequential to draft amendments to MARPOL Annex II. Associated amendments to the BCH Code were approved for adoption in conjunction with the adoption of the IBC Code amendments.

Containerised cargoes - fire and other hazards

Containerisation has been responsible for a revolution in cargo handling and rapid port turnrounds 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 of 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 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, notably 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.

The spate of containership fires has continued in 2019. With just two months of the year having passed, Hapag Lloyd’s Yantian Express and APL’s APL Vancouver both suffered major fires and needed to be salvaged. In both cases, the seat of the fire was in the cargo holds although exact causes have still to be determined.

In recent years the IMO has laid down new rules for fire extinguishing systems on container ships but there is a widely-held belief that the size of modern container vessels – especially the ultra large ships – makes an effective fire-fighting system impossible to produce.

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. This 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.

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