USCG says attribution of fires caused by electrical faults cannot be overstated

A fire blaze on a cargo ship. Credit: Yonhap/Yonhap News Agency/PA Images

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has emphasised the immense fire and explosion risks associated with the improper installation, certification, and maintenance of electrical equipment in hazardous areas.

In its published safety alert, Electrical Issues Spark Major Concern – Addressing Hazardous Area Electrical Installations Knowledge Gaps, the USCG stressed the importance of ensuring the proper installation and certification of electrical equipment in hazardous areas to reduce the risk of fire or explosion on board vessels.

The USCG stated in the alert that a lack of knowledge around regulations and standards could be fuelling fires on board from electrical installations. USCG personnel nationwide have discovered instances where individuals responsible for the installation, maintenance, and oversight of this equipment on board foreign and domestic vessels were unfamiliar with the appropriate standards to follow.

Port State Control Officers (PSCOs) have also found certified safe equipment improperly installed or identified missing components, which compromise the certification of the system and nullify this critical protection in a flammable environment. In other cases, PSCOs found degraded components and evidence of equipment not being maintained or inspected.

The safety alert also detailed statistics from the Liquefied Gas Carrier National Center of Expertise (LGC NCOE), which confirmed that electrical equipment in hazardous areas continues to be a common deficiency on board liquefied gas carriers during Certificate of Compliance examinations. The safety alert noted that in the past 12 months, 12% of all deficiencies written to gas carriers involved hazardous area electrical equipment.

Fire and explosion protection standards for electrical equipment in the oil and gas industry worldwide are a substantial part of the industry’s safety barrier. However, regulatory and certification authorities routinely use their own standards. The US, for example, may use the National Electrical Code (NEC) or American Petroleum Institute (API) standards while other countries have separate requirements. Nevertheless, for vessels subject to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, electrical equipment installations in hazardous areas are required to meet a standard not inferior to those of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), in particular IEC 60092-502:1999.

In the safety alert, which can be accessed here, the USCG recommended that shipowners, operators, shipboard personnel, and service providers familiarise themselves with the standards to ensure the safety of electrical systems on board. These include IEC standards, upkeep of proper training of crew, and the implementation of periodic inspections.