Poorly designed enclosed spaces are proving to be actual death traps for seafarers and port stevedores alike – and, depressingly, these fatalities are dangerously close to becoming accepted as an ‘inevitable’ part of maritime and offshore operations.
The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has calculated that, since January 2018, 12 seafarers and 16 dockers have died in enclosed spaces, with causes of death including asphyxiation (due to low oxygen content), explosions and falls from heights (as a result of blacking out). Asphyxiation is a frequent ‘silent killer’: for example, the International Group of P&I Clubs reports that, of 83 deaths recorded in enclosed spaces between 2015-2020, 53% were caused by oxygen depletion.
The problem is typically portrayed as one affecting tankers, bulkers and offshore vessels, but smaller commercial vessels are not exempt. In August 2018, a fisherman died aboard the 56m pelagic trawler Sunbeam, operating in Scottish waters, while attempting to pump water from the aft centre refrigerated seawater (RSW) tank. This tank was found to contain the gas Freon, which had reduced the oxygen content to a mere 6% from the bottom of the tank to 1.5m upwards. A deckhand who entered the tank to rescue the casualty nearly passed out too, but fortunately managed to climb out in time.
Not everyone is so lucky: when assessing enclosed space fatalities, the phrase ‘trouble comes in threes’ tends to crop up. Although not a universal feature of these cases, it has been noted that many of these incidents result in three fatalities. Typically, a crew member will collapse in the tank or space, as a result of reduced oxygen and the presence of toxic gases; a second member of personnel will attempt to rescue this casualty, but also be overcome by the atmosphere; and a third observer will venture into the space to rescue both fallen colleagues, before also succumbing to the atmospheric hazard. In fact, class society DNV has estimated that more than 50% of enclosed space fatalities occur when one crew member is attempting to rescue another.
In addition to RSW tanks, machinery spaces and cargo holds, common onboard ‘danger zones’ include chain lockers, ballast and sewage tanks and duct keels. Consequently, there have been numerous industry calls to halt this epidemic, ranging from requests for naval architects to reconsider the design of these spaces and their access hatches, to the development of a new regulatory landscape. In January 2015, new SOLAS rules made safety drills for enclosed space operations mandatory and, from July 2016, SOLAS-compliant vessels must carry suitable on board gas detector kit. Yet, the safety breaches and tragic consequences continue.
No matter how often the industry discusses the problem, though, the death toll refuses to subside. Ship managers’ association InterManager, which has been collating statistics related to enclosed space incidents since 1998, recently made an impassioned plea for companies to record all enclosed space fatalities, following the deaths of two shore workers in a space aboard a cargo ship in May. One stumbling block is that these incidents are woefully under-reported, making it exceedingly difficult to get a full overview of the extent of the problem. At the very least, this patchy reporting makes the marine sector’s avowed commitment to safety seem like a bad joke.
More preventative measures are desperately required to prevent these incidents from occurring in the first place, InterManager secretary general Capt. Kuba Szymanski argues. Ship & Boat International asked Szymanski why these deaths keep occurring. Speaking frankly, he replied: “Because the shipping industry, right from the design board all the way to operational management, has created an unsafe environment. It did not keep stats, and drew very odd conclusions – particularly the conclusion that it is the end user who is guilty of killing himself.”
InterManager’s statistics indicate that 104 shore workers and 51 seafarers have died in enclosed spaces since 1998 – and that’s not counting the two fatalities recorded in late June, just as Ship & Boat International was going to press. Szymanski explains: “When, in 2018, InterManager asked seafarers one simple question – ‘why do you kill yourselves in enclosed spaces?’ – nearly 5,000 seafarers responded, saying: 1) ‘Because I am confused with conflicting procedures, guidelines and regulations’; 2) ‘Because enclosed spaces are not designed for human beings to operate in’; and 3) ‘Because there is a lot of time pressure on us to do the job’. There were more points raised, but these three points amounted to 60% of all responses.”
The second response, regarding enclosed space design, is particularly illuminating, and one that some of our readers may not like to hear – but Szymanski believes that only so much blame can be apportioned to poor onboard safety management plans. “Naval architects are absolutely not trained in enclosed spaces, in comparison to seafarers who have been through numerous courses and drills – and who are extremely frustrated as they are being taught how to put a square peg into a round hole!” he comments. “Enclosed spaces, as designed today, pose enormous risk, and this is being ‘covered up’ by trying to teach seafarers how to overcome the design shortfalls.”
More pressure needs to be put on naval architects to design more usable, easy-to-access holds and entry points, Szymanski opines. “Risk should be ‘designed out’ of the equation,” he says, arguing that a “human-centric approach” is the course of action advocated by InterManager and its project partners. However, he concedes that current lack of sufficient incident reports means that some naval architects may simply be unaware of the frequency of enclosed space fatalities: it’s a vicious circle, where architects remain oblivious to the fact that their designs are putting seafarers at severe risk.
Ship & Boat International would be interested in hearing from any naval architects working to address this problem.