Seafarers speak out on enclosed space deaths

Credit: Officer of the Watch files

Seafarers and dock workers are still dying while working in enclosed spaces in part because shipping industry investigations encourage a “blame culture”, said a new survey from ship management trade association InterManager.

Almost 5,000 seafarers – including vessel operators, managers, and crew – took part in the three month-long industry-wide survey, with crew from some 250 ships providing feedback. Respondents cited concerns about vessel design and a perceived lack of consideration given to access areas and the people working in them.

The seafarers surveyed reported that enclosed spaces are frequently impossible to properly ventilate or to measure the atmosphere in, as well as being difficult to reach. Tight timeframes for cargo hold and tank preparation were likened to “bullying on an industrial scale” – with respondents calling on ship managers to protect them from detrimental time pressures.

Seafarers also feel let down by accident investigation procedures which, they said, stop at finding a “guilty party” and rarely work to discover why an incident occurred. The survey revealed a feeling that accident investigation results are inconsistent, indicating that the absence of a standard investigation format prevents a proper and thorough analysis of accidents.

In addition to outlining problems, the survey asked recipients to identify potential solutions to avoid further deaths. Seafarers subsequently called for clearer identification of hazardous spaces, suggesting access should be restricted by senior management onboard or ashore.

“Seafarers seem to believe that this unsafe environment is created by designers and enforced by manuals and procedures, and therefore cannot be disputed and has to be followed – even if it results in death,” said Captain Kuba Szymanski, InterManager Secretary General.

The InterManager survey comes on the heels of a marine safety alert issued by the US Coast Guard to remind vessel operators of the hazards of confined space entry. The release was prompted by a recent casualty, which saw three people asphyxiate while working onboard a laid-up mobile offshore drilling unit.

The Swedish Accident Investigation Authority recently issued a report of its own after a stevedore died from lack of oxygen as he entered an unventilated spiral ladder leading down to one of the cargo holds on a bulk carrier.

The investigation concluded that the accident was caused by factors such as, “a lack of sufficiently structured methods for provision of safety-critical information and robust systems for discovering and rectifying procedural drifts.”