Safety First, Safety Second, Safety Always!

file photo
file photo

Published Aug 7, 2019 4:57 PM by James Taylor

During my career in the shipping business, the subject of safety was always at the forefront. I was fortunate to be schooled by several knowledgeable people in the business. It was always stressed that you should never take chances in situations that did not look or “feel” right. Safety gear was meant for a purpose and should never be neglected or forgotten. The rule of thumb was that the one time that you forgot or did not observe safety rules would be the time you would suffer the consequences. 

Below are the main tenants of common sense and safety rules.

1. Always have your safety gear with you and USE it.

2. Normal gear: hard hats (chin strap if applicable), safety shoes (steel or ceramic toe shields), high visibility safety vest, safety glasses, safety gloves. Additional gear: Life vest for use near or on the water, leg straps for pant cuffs, ear protection and respiration masks/filters as needed.

3. Always have your head on a “swivel” and be aware of what is going on around you.

4. Never be distracted by devices while on board or in a cargo area i.e. radio, phone etc. Wait until you are in a clear location.

5. Never walk close to a cargo stack where you could be hit by a forklift blade.

6. Never walk under or near a load during a lift.

7. If you cannot see the crane or machine driver, he cannot see you.

8. When boarding a ships gangway, always have both hands free. Always have on a life vest when boarding in the stream.

9. When using a pilot ladder, always have two solid points of contact during your movements up and down. Use gloves with gripping surfaces especially in bad weather. Always follow the instructions of the launch captain. Always test the ladder with your weight prior to using same.

10. Have the ship use a line to lift your bag if using the pilot ladder.

11. When working on a ship and descending into the hold, always make sure you advise ship staff where you are going. Before going into a ships hold, always have an idea what cargo is inside.

12. Always be aware of ship ladder locations in case of any incident. Always carry a filtered mask while in the ships hold. Never enter a closed ships compartment without emergency breathing gear. Never enter a cargo hold until the hatches have been opened.

13. Always follow the instructions of any ship personnel.

14. Exercise caution in connection with any hazardous cargo being loaded or discharged. If supervising cargo, you should always have a copy of the Dangerous Cargo Manifest with you. In addition, always check safety status of all ship cargo equipment i.e. cranes etc.

15. Check and observe location of required terminal safety gear and first aid materials. It is also a good idea to have in your car a small first aid kit for any minor injuries. Always get a tetanus shot for any cuts on the ship or in terminal.

16. Never traverse cargo areas during active operations i.e. top of containers. Crane operator may not be able to see you.

17. Exercise caution when walking on top of any cargoes. Require dunnage or plywood where needed to avoid any void spaces. Never stand in the hatch square during cargo operations.

18. Never walk on top of bulk cargoes without a safety line and personnel present.

19. Always advise your office where you are going and your expected return.

20. Always have emergency contacts in phone speed dial status for easy access.

I have outlined below several events during my experience which show the importance of safety in the shipping workplace.

A ship boarding incident with gangway

This event involved yours truly when boarding a ship at the Annapolis anchorage during a winter month. I was boarding a ship in the roads and had already had the ship’s crew lift my boarding bag with a line. While on the launch boat and with both hands on the rails of the gangway, I tested my weight. However, when I transferred my whole weight to the bottom of the gangway and moved off the launch, the bottom platform broke, and I fell about five feet into the water. 

The shock of the cold water was numbing. However the fact that I had on a life vest and was not weighted down by my bag helped me stay safely afloat until the launch staff could pull me out of the water. My arrival on the ship, as you can imagine, was delayed somewhat, but I arrived safely due to adherence to safety rules and the quick action of the launch staff. This event as a young man drove the safety issue home for me!

Entering a closed ships compartment

In the late 1970s, we had a bulk ship loading grain at one of the grain elevators in Baltimore. In addition to her cargo holds, the vessel's master indicated that he also wanted to load in the ships wing tanks. It was a normal practice, but it required the tank to be dried out after washing with fresh water. It was in our winter months and drying took longer. Without advising any agency or terminal staff and acting against the terminal rules, the master placed a small portable pump in the wing tank to speed up the process. 

During the night, the pumped stopped running, and this was noted by ships duty staff. The seaman apparently assumed that the pump had run out of fuel. Unfortunately, the truth was that the pump had used up all the oxygen in the compartment. When the seaman went into the tank to check, he was overcome and died. 

A fellow crewmember he was working with notified the duty officer but then went down in the tank to rescue his friend. He did not take the time to get breathing gear which is stored on deck. The second man was also overcome and expired. The duty officer rushed to the tank opening and made the same mistake as the first two men. 

By this time, fire emergency personnel had arrived on the ship. The officer had managed to get most of the way back up the ladder but was too weak to proceed and was close to death. A fireman with a tank was able to reach him in time and safe his life. It was then their grisly task to retrieve the two bodies of the men. The ship’s master and chief officer were arrested by the police in conjunction with the Coast Guard and were eventually sent home to stand trial. 

A footnote to this tragedy was that the duty officer who nearly perished had his wife on board and was set to go home prior to the ship’s departure from Baltimore. The illegal event coupled with ship personnel not following safety protocols resulted in two deaths and the near death of a third crewmember. 

Without the prompt response and quick action of the local fire emergency staff, the tragedy would have been worse. The mandatory safety meeting for this ship had been done about 10 days prior to this accident. These safety meetings are designed to remind ships staff of the importance to observe safety protocols. In this case, people were not paying attention, and a tragedy occurred. 

The article in the local paper the next day with a haunting picture of the rescued officer covered in grain dust with tears on his face was a sad and poignant reminder of why safety is critical and should never be taken for granted.

Safety working on board the vessel

During cargo operations on a container ship, a crewmember was working on one of the container stacks retrieving securing cones and twist locks. This type of work is normally done by the ship’s crew after cargo operations are completed. It is especially dangerous to do this task at night which was the case here. Why the man was up there will never be known. He was not wearing a high visibility vest. 

Apparently during night cargo operations, the spreader bar on the container crane swept across the tiers and struck the man knocking him overboard. Unfortunately, no one saw the accident and his floating body was not discovered until the next morning by the bridge watch. His skull and ribcage had been smashed by the impact, and he was killed on impact. The tragedy would have been avoided if the crewmember had followed proper safety protocols:

1. Wear a safety vest
2. No work on deck stacks during cargo operations
3. Advise deck officer of his activities

It was our sad duty to arrange for his body and personal effects to be shipped to his home in the Philippines.

Ship boarding by pilot ladder

As a manager, I always stressed the importance of safety with emphasis on this function. Some of the younger guys would roll their eyes and say “like OK man.” I told them I did not want to have to advise their relatives of an accident or death. I would point out my experience that fortunately had a positive outcome. What finally made an impact was a fatal accident involving a Federal pilot on the Delaware River. 

This man had been a pilot on the Delaware for more than 20 years. He had on a safety vest and a self-inflating life jacket which is common with pilots and the military. One boarding practice that was always stressed when using a pilot ladder was to move up quickly at least 10 feet on the ladder after disembarking the pilot launch. This was meant to avoid the launch boat being pushed back against the ship during bad weather. This could result in a crushing of the person boarding on the ladder. 

Why this experienced pilot did not move up quickly during the existing bad weather is not known. Perhaps he had a medical emergency, as he was 60 years old. He could have also had some difficulty with gripping the likely wet ladder ropes. We will never know, as he was crushed by the pilot boat which had been pushed back by the heavy seas. 

The pilot disappeared despite an extensive boat and helicopter search. His body was not found until days later. It was a tragedy that happened despite safety equipment and an experienced pilot. This event points out that accidents can happen despite safety gear if operating measures and guidelines are not observed especially during bad weather or low visibility scenarios.

Safety must always be priority one. Safety must never be taken for granted. Regular safety meetings are important to keep people freshly aware of protocols and procedures. Adherence to this practice will help to mitigate unsafe events.


James Taylor is a marine contractor.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.