An open cargo hold is a dangerous area. Whether working cargo or carrying out maintenance on deck, seafarers, stevedores and contractors can end up in unsafe positions without adequate control over the task or provided with sufficient protection.
The risks sound quite simple and perhaps obvious. If a person is working near an open hatch cover or the edge of a tween deck, perhaps in a busy environment with moving loads and equipment, the probability of falling into the hold is high. The consequences of falling from such a great height are likely to be fatal.
But fatalities are happening, as we will see in this case study based on a real incident.
A case study
The bosun on board a bulk carrier was assigned to perform routine maintenance on a hatch coaming.
Prior to starting the job, the bosun, along with an AB was briefed by the Chief Officer. The scope of work was to touch up the coating of the internal section of the coaming. They decided they should do this by stepping on a bar running along the outside of the coaming and apply the paint by roller with an extension. They carried out a risk assessment and took safety measures that they thought were appropriate, such as safety belt and lifeline as well as personal protective equipment such as helmet, gloves, safety shoes, vest etc.
The plan was agreed and relevant working aloft permit-to-work and risk assessment forms were prepared and signed. The job started following the agreed plan. The bosun painted while the AB stood by on safety watch.
Work carried on all morning, but when resuming after lunch, the bosun changed the plan, seeing the opportunity to finish earlier and do the job with less effort.
He decided to use the Bosun’s Chair and place his body in a seating position above the hatch coaming with one foot inside the hold and one outside the hold. Other than the AB, no-one else was aware of this change of plan.
The bosun prepared the rigging rope and safety line himself and asked the AB to secure the other end of the ropes. He then took his position to start painting.
The two ropes used for rigging and safety parted and the bosun fell into the cargo hold from a height of 19 metres.
The fall was fatal.
It was found that the Bosun’s Chair was incorrectly used and he used rope that was in poor condition and unsuitable for the task.
The reasons why incidents such as this happen are complex. Clearly, the bosun did not follow the ship’s procedures and deviated from the original plan without sufficiently assessing the risk. But there will be underlying reasons why the bosun acted in the way he did. In many cases, these important details are not uncovered. Human behaviour is rarely simple.
However, cases like this show the need to properly plan your work and assess the risk. If the plan changes, start the process all over again.
Always use the right safety equipment in the manner it is meant to be used.
Working aloft is a high-risk task that has the potential to kill. It needs to be treated as such.
Guidance on safe working from height can be found here in Chapter 17 of the UK Code of Safe Working Practices for Merchant Seafarers.
Source: North P&I