Safety at Sea

Right gear and right attitude

Paul Gunton
Paul Gunton

14 March 2019

Right gear and right attitude

A ship is primarily a means for carrying cargo or performing some other task, but it is also a working environment in its own right and one that probably includes more different niche areas than most shore-based factories or plants.

For the sake of safety, appropriate work wear should be issued to all crew members on joining the ship. The kit should be in good serviceable condition and of an appropriate size. Work wear that is too small or too large can present safety problems of its own. As a minimum, each crew member should have overalls, a safety helmet, safety goggles, boots and gloves. For crew working in areas of high noise levels, ear protectors are essential and are now a requirement under MLC2006. Thought should also be given to climate and weather conditions likely to be encountered so that the equipment is appropriate.

Spare equipment should be available on board to replace any that is damaged or lost. Equipment such as welding masks and safety harnesses should be present in sufficient numbers allowing crew to have access to them when needed.

Every port call involves at least two operations involving the ship’s mooring ropes and winches and this is when many accidents occur. Accidents usually involve crew getting crushed in machinery or caught in ropes. Safety begins with ensuring the ropes, wires and machinery are well maintained and rigged properly. The mooring area should be kept free of equipment not needed for the immediate operation as this often causes trips and falls as crew attempt to work in and around obstacles. Crew involved should be properly trained and supervised with the supervisor not being required to perform any task that prevents him from observing the actions of others.

Mooring can be heavy work and should not be entrusted to crew unable to meet the physical demands of the task. Crew engaged in operations should be wearing appropriate PPE especially, hard hats, safety boots or shoes and gloves. The snap-back zone – the area likely to be most affected if a mooring rope under tension parts – should be well marked and crew trained to stay out of it. The crew should also be aware of the dangers of being trapped in a bight. Trapped crew can be pulled over the side, into the winch or against bitts.

Working at height could involve tasks such as painting or cleaning the hull of the ship, cleaning holds, work on cranes, derricks and masts and other similar jobs. When working at height, crew should be issued with hard hats and most importantly a safety harness. If the work involves paints or chemicals, then a facemask to prevent inhalation of substances and safety glasses or goggles to protect the eyes. Hot work such as welding or cutting will need appropriate gloves and a welding mask to protect the face and eyes, especially from the condition known as arc eye or welder’s flash.

Hot work should never be carried out without a prior risk assessment and a permit to work system should be operating. Several incidents have been recorded where, although a risk assessment was carried out taking into account factors in the immediate vicinity, no thought was given to adjacent spaces on the other side of the structure being worked on. Particular attention should be paid to pipes and cabling that may be affected by any hot work.

Possibly one of the most dangerous aspects of work on ships is when a crew member must enter an enclosed space to carry out work. This is now regulated under SOLAS and the use of gas detection instruments is also now mandatory. Whether a ballast tank, a void space, or even a cargo hold, enclosed places can generate or contain toxic gases leaked in from elsewhere. In a cargo hold, the use of bobcats and forklifts can lead to poisonous fume build up as can some of the fumigants used to kill pests in cargoes such as grain.

Every vessel should have a procedure that is followed closely before a crew member enters an enclosed space. A risk assessment should be done and, as with hot work, any work being done in neighbouring spaces must be taken into account. A check for oxygen and other gas content should be carried out using a properly calibrated and tested portable gas detector. Under no circumstances should an entry be attempted if oxygen levels are below 20% by volume.

Lighting should be adequate for the work and the crew member should carry a torch. A time period for the work should be agreed and if it looks to be exceeded, a further risk assessment and permit may be needed. Sign boards should be provided at required places warning other persons not to start any equipment, machinery or any operation in the confined space that could endanger those working there.

Recovery and resuscitation equipment should be on hand before the space is entered and a second crewman should remain on standby while the person working is in the enclosed space. In the event of an accident or incident the standby crew should raise the alarm and not attempt rescue alone. The person entering the space should be equipped with appropriate PPE including an oxygen analyser and gas detector. As a final safety measure, consideration should be given to a life line being carried.