Svitzer Fined $2.5M for 2019 Tug Crewmember Fatality

Ian Webb, 62, was a 30-year veteran of Svitzer and its predecessor companies on the River Mersey (Merseyside Police)

Published Feb 20, 2023 10:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

A court in Liverpool has fined tug operator Svitzer Marine more than $2.5 million in connection with the death of a tug engineer at Birkenhead in 2019. 

At 1730 on the evening of January 27, 2019, the tug Millgarth received instructions to depart the Tranmere Oil Terminal at Birkenhead to help the ferry Stena Mersey to its berth in Liverpool. Surface conditions were rough. As the tug prepared to get under way, Millgarth’s chief engineer, Ian Webb, stepped to the pier and released two lines aft, then walked forward to release the head line. Once Webb had completed this, he stepped over a damaged timber on the dock edge and tried to climb down onto a fender on the dock face. At 1749, he fell over backwards into a gap between the fender and the pier. 

Webb, 62, was wearing full safety equipment and an auto-inflating lifejacket. The master pulled the tug away from the pier for safety, and the crew threw the chief engineer a life ring with a line attached. He was conscious, and he held on as the crew pulled him alongside the tug's boarding ladder. However, he could not climb it. 

Two crewmembers fetched the tug's MOB recovery sling and maneuvered it under the chief engineer's arms. They tried to pull him out of the water, but they were unable to raise him further than his waist. They did not have a davit for the sling. After about five minutes, Webb appeared to lose consciousness, then slipped out of the sling and drifted away from the hull. 

The dock-face fendering system at the pier was designed for tankers. The location of the engineer's fall is marked with flagging tape. (MAIB)

A rescue boat arrived at 1811, and a tethered rescue swimmer brought Webb safely aboard shortly after. He had been in the water for more than 20 minutes, and he was pronounced dead at Royal Liverpool University Hospital. A postmortem determined that the cause was cardiac arrest due to cold water immersion. 

In its investigation, the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch found that accessing tugs via the dock fenders at the Tranmere Oil Terminal was a common practice and was extremely dangerous, particularly in poor weather conditions like those on the night of the casualty. The lack of safe access to and from Svitzer tugs at Tranmere Oil Terminal had been recognized for at least 14 years prior to the accident and had been raised at safety committee meetings and during company inspections many times, according to MAIB. 

The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency brought charges against Svitzer in Liverpool Magistrates' Court for failing to instruct its crews in the use of rescue equipment and failure to ensure proper safety drills, among other allegations. Svitzer Marine pleaded guilty.

On Monday, Judge Garrett Byrne sentenced Svitzer to pay a fine of $2.4 million and $165,000 in court costs. Svitzer paid a similar penalty in a 2013 safety case, which also ended in a guilty plea. 

"We accept the company has a serious previous conviction, but it is in almost completely different circumstances," said Svitzer's counsel, Justin Ageros, according to the Liverpool Echo. "There have been some very practical steps taken which have ended up in improvements in guidance. Svitzer has made great efforts to make improvements industry-wide."

The captain of the Millgarth at the time of the casualty also faced charges. The UK MCA alleged that he instructed Webb to board the tug using an "extremely and quite obviously dangerous" method, in rough weather, with the tug pitching and rolling next to the pier. The captain denied wrongdoing and said he had been "trained" to use the fender as a step for boarding the tug. He was ultimately acquitted.