After Eight Deaths, InterManager Calls for Confined-Space Rethink

Confined space tank
File image courtesy MAIB

Published Dec 14, 2023 7:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

After a series of eight confined-space fatalities in a week, InterManager has called for a new focus on reducing the risk of this perennial and deadly hazard. 

Confined-space entry has been risky as long as shipping has had confined spaces, and there are many reasons. The first is intrinsic to the ship itself: when steel rusts, it consumes the oxygen in the air around it, and if the space has no means of air circulation it can become dangerously anoxic. The risk is undetectable to personnel until they enter the compartment and find that they cannot breathe (unless they test with an oxygen sensor). The undetectability is what makes confined space accidents so tragic: all too often, a second or third crewmember will see an unconscious shipmate in a hold, enter it to help them, and suffer the same fate. 

Many cargoes can create confined-space hazards, either through oxygen depletion (coal cargoes), air displacement (Freon refrigerants), or emit hazardous fumes (petroleum, ferrosilicon, silicomanganese). 

The risk is commonplace and resistant to mitigation; after decades of advocacy and warnings from regulators, it remains a persistent cause of death in shipping. Over the past week alone, three seafarers and five shore workers were killed in confined space accidents worldwide, bringing the total to 31 for the year. 

“One death is too many but eight in seven days is ridiculous. This is an industry-wide issue which everyone in the shipping community must work together to resolve. We have crew members and shore workers placed under unrealistic time pressures to conduct high-risk tasks such as tank cleaning, and we have confusing instructions which vary from ship to ship as to what procedures and protocols must be followed," said InterManager Secretary General Capt. Kuba Szymanski. 

Since 1996, a recorded total of 310 personnel lost their lives in shipboard confined spaces, according to InterManager. The association has lobbied IMO to revise its rules for confined space entry aboard ships, given the persistent hazard to seafarers. 

“It’s not enough to blame the seafarers and offer additional training. Accident investigations must delve deeper into why people make the decisions they do and examine what external pressures impact those decisions," Szymanski said. "No one should lose their life doing their job."

He added that it is time for naval architects to come up with solutions to "design out" as much of the risk as possible. The association hopes that rethinking design in order to factor in the human element will help prevent casualties.