Sixteen of 21 seafarers have been evacuated from the one-year old Liberian-registered bulker Hermann Schoening due to phosphine gas leaking from cargo holds into the accommodation block. Phosphine gas is a fumigant widely used on grain carriers and is often generated by aluminium phosphide tablets, nicked in parts of Latin America as Tablets of Love because of their use by suicidees.
An investigation is underway but the scale of the incident suggests that the gas may have entered the accommodation block through the ventilation system. Phosphine gas has been known to enter the bridge and lead to a fatality. In another incident, which is the subject of the MAC podcast “The Case of the Tablets of Love”, the gas entered a cabin through pinholes between the cargo hold and the cabin.
Phosphine gas has a characteristic ‘garlicky’ smell but that may be masked by other odours onboard.
The Hermann Schoening incident is an example of a particular class of incident in which space that would not normally be regarded as confined spaces share the hazard of a confined space due to direct atmospheric linkage.
Although the cause of this incident is still under investigation, MAC strongly recommends that seafarers become familiar with the ventilation ducting aboard their ships if toxic gases are likely to be present in a hold.
Ventilation ducting should be examined to ensure that cargo holds are fully isolated from the accommodation and that there are no holes or tears which can link the cargo hold ventilation to the accomodation.
Again, although unlikely to be a contributing factor in such a new ship, we suggest inspecting cargo hold bulkheads adjacent to accommodation for the possible presence of pinholes that may allow toxic gases into the accommodation.
Finally, when a cargo has been fumigated, ensure than regular monitoring using appropriate gas detection equipment is carried out and that sufficient spare of disposables are carried aboard to provide monitoring through the voyage.