Safety lessons from the most extreme jobs in seafaring

Work at sea is inherently hazardous, but some seafarers face extreme danger on a daily basis, which requires a greater emphasis on safety awareness, protective measures, and effective management. The people who do the five jobs listed below are made of sterling stuff, indeed …

Vessel salvor/salvage worker


If a ship has broken down, sunk, capsized, or run aground, the salvage team must either refloat it, or remove the vessel and its cargo from the seabed and tow it to a port, shipyard, or ship breaking facility.

The more complicated the salvage job, the riskier it becomes. Salvors typically work with a lot of heavy equipment, such as cranes and floating dry docks, which increases the risk of injury from falling equipment or cargo.

Efforts to lift and refloat larger ships is made more hazardous by the movement of water and bad weather, and if the damaged ship is leaking flammable or toxic oil or chemicals, salvors could be burned or poisoned through inhalation. Offshore salvage is particularly dangerous due to remoteness from land, while high volumes of traffic in ports or harbors pose other risks.

Specialist salvage divers may work in and around unstable wrecks, potentially resulting in injury. A diver was killed during the massive two-year salvage of the Costa Concordia when installing tanks on the side of the ship, designed to be filled with air to refloat it. The man cut his leg on a piece of metal and became stuck and although another diver was able to free him, he died soon after due to excessive bleeding.

Cruise ship firefighter

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Cruise ships are effectively self-contained towns with large populations, which significantly increases risks if a fire breaks out. There may be limited options to escape and loading hundreds of passengers onto lifeboats is both impractical and time consuming.

Cruise ship fires are a frequent occurrence – recent incidents include a fire on board the Russian river cruise ship Pyotr Tchaikovsky, which left one person dead and effectively destroyed the ship. The Carnival Legend caught fire while it was sailing into Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, in September.

Cruise ships typically employ dedicated firefighters with special training and responsibilities who, in the event of a fire, don full protective clothing, masks, and air tanks. Other crew members augment the firefighting team as required and in line with the ship’s mustering list and firefighting plan. Under STCW 95, all deck and engine officers and crew must have advanced firefighting certification.

Stevedore/dock worker

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The work of a stevedore can be physically demanding and hazardous – it may involve lashing and securing cargoes, or moving cargo using either ships’ equipment or manual labor. Working on board unfamiliar ships can increase hazards, resulting in things such as improper use of equipment, unauthorised entry into restricted areas or enclosed spaces, inappropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), or the use of equipment not typically used for cargo operations.

Fatal or serious accidents have often occurred when stevedores stand on top of moving objects during cargo operations, particularly when lifting containers, but also on gangways or baskets during loading and discharging.

Two recently published investigation reports highlighted stevedore fatalities in enclosed spaces. One casual laborer died on board the MV Declan Duff when it was discharging coal in Oxelösund, Sweden, last year. The man entered an unventilated spiral ladder leading down to one of the cargo holds and subsequently died from oxygen deficiency.

Another stevedore died on board the MV A Navigation when it was discharging coal in Port Kelang in Malaysia in 2018. The seafarer was discovered with severe burns to his upper body, lying on the upper platform of the access ladder to the cargo hold. Although the precise reason for the accident could not be ascertained, it is thought that a pocket of methane gas and coal dust ignited at the top of the ladder. The stevedore appeared to have entered the compartment without prior consent and without any PPE.

Regardless of the level of training given to stevedores by ports, masters must ensure that proper monitoring and supervision is in place to ensure they are working safely and operating equipment correctly in designated areas.

Crew who work in enclosed spaces

Credit: Officer of the Watch files

Deaths in enclosed spaces continue to blight the shipping sector with even experienced seafarers such as masters, chief officers, and chief engineers falling prey to toxic atmospheres.

An analysis of accidents on bulk cargo vessels, published by the International Bulk Terminals Association last year, found that at least 106 people lost their lives, and many more were seriously injured, in accidents involving the carriage or handling of solid bulk cargoes between 1991 and 2018.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) guidelines recommend that companies carry out a risk assessment to identify all enclosed spaces onboard a ship, which should be periodically revisited to ensure validity. Recent changes to SOLAS mandated enclosed space drills, designed to validate ships’ rescue plans and the practical use of rescue equipment in an emergency, every two months.

But more can be done to prevent further victims of the so-called ‘invisible assassin’. Appropriate categorisation of enclosed spaces , that may be oxygen-deficient, oxygen-enriched, flammable, and/or toxic, can be difficult because the nature of the hazard can change from day to day, or from one hour to the next – for example, if there is a change of cargo.

Not all spaces are entirely enclosed, though. For example, a cargo hold with the hatch cover open for several days might appear well-ventilated, but carbon monoxide, which is heavier than air, could remain at the bottom, causing anyone that descends into it to collapse.

Speaking to SAS in May this year, Alan Blume, deputy commissioner of maritime affairs at the Republic of the Marshall Islands Registry, commented: “Seafarers typically do their enclosed space entry training on shore, but this is not always relevant to their ship. The person conducting training needs to stop and ask: ‘What kind of spaces do you go into during the course of a given day and are they enclosed?’ When people actually start to think about their onboard situation, they realize that certain spaces may be dangerous to enter.”

Engine room mechanic

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A ship’s engine room is an extremely hostile working environment and home to a variety of machinery and systems where mechanics must work with high temperature and high pressure systems. According to figures from the Swedish Club, most ships’ fires start in the engine room and, in seven out of 10 cases, are caused by fuel oil leakage or a short circuit in electrical equipment.

Injuries may result from suffocation from asphyxiating gases, such as carbon monoxide, or oxygen deficiency, during maintenance or cleaning operations. Burns may be caused by exposure to flames or contact with hot components such as pipes, steam lines, hot water, or steam. Mechanics could get electric shocks from defective installations and equipment including faulty insulation and their limbs could become entangled in moving or rotating machinery, belts, shafts, or pulleys, etc.

In addition, exposure to noise or vibrations could cause occupational health issues, including hearing loss or hand-arm vibration syndrome.

The ship’s safety management system should identify and mitigate for risks in the engine room. Maintenance and repairs have their own procedures and risk mitigation strategies, such as the requirement for a hot works permit and the review of equipment manuals to ensure correct maintenance procedures.