Nov 032010

Protected by a lack of data on lifeboat deaths and injuries the majority of flag states are dragging their collective feet on improving the chances of seafarers surviving lifeboat drills. BIMCO is recommending a go-it-alone strategy among its members to rig fall protection devices.

BIMCO’s views are supported by a vast swathe of the maritime industry, what it refers to as a “historical alliance of seafarers, shipowners and P&I interests”.

In a recent commentary to its members BIMCO says: “The IMO Intersessional Working Group on Lifeboat Release Hooks (ISWG LRH) met in London at the IMO headquarters from 20-22 October 2010. At the ISWG LHR the industry observers lead the flag states in a desire to save the lives of seafarers. Unfortunately, the unusual, even historical alliance of seafarers, shipowners and P&I interests did not mange to get their views heard by the majority of flag states. The fact that no international statistics were available made BIMCO feel that there was a need for more detailed knowledge about accidents with on-load release hooks on lifeboats and the use of fall preventer devices (FPDs). Consequently, in July 2010, BIMCO made a survey among its membership in order to establish more knowledge on lifeboat safety. Four accidents were reported out of the 307 responses received. No injuries and deaths were reported. The result also showed that 285 of the replying ships used FPDs all the time, during maintenance or drills. Out of these, 14 ships used FPDs all the time, 13 during drills only and 258 used FPDs during drills and maintenance work. All ships in companies that confirmed having had an accident used FPDs. The above findings formed the basis of a BIMCO document to the ISWG LRH.

“The group noted document ISWG LRH/4 (BIMCO), proposing, inter-alia, the use of FPDs, however, and invited the Committee to instruct the DE Sub-Committee to consider the matter”. Such was the recognition achieved at IMO of the above mentioned survey into lifeboat accidents. The words appear to represent progress, and in IMO terms do so, but they also delay this important work substantially. The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) – the body responsible for the drafting and re-drafting of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention – is the Committee referred to and its 88th sitting, in late November, is the time at which the instruction to the Design and Equipment Sub-committee (DE), if MSC agrees to it, will be invoked. DE 54, which is meeting as this report is being written, will not discuss the matter as its agenda is already full and the sub-committee has not been instructed by its parent – MSC – to do so. Instead, any serious, in-depth discussion will not occur until DE 55, which meets in March next year.

“The reader might detect a hint of frustration; if so they would be correct. More than one contributor to the debates mentioned that in this “year of the seafarer” little urgency appeared to be attached to the reason for the inter-sessional working group (an extraordinary measure in the IMO), namely the search for a solution to the on-going problem of accidents in lifeboats. It is well known in the industry that these lifeboat accidents occur mainly in side-launched enclosed boats with on-load release hooks. More shocking, however, is the fact that most of the accidents have occurred during drills. Based on a paper submitted by UK, the meeting began a tortuous discussion on the need for testing of hooks to determine wear in moving parts, despite the discovery that the number of times the equipment will be required to operate in a 25 year life time would, on a cargo vessel be hundreds, not thousands. Such a level of repeated cycles seems not to represent extreme stress on the system and wear of any significance should not be expected. The group had been urged by BIMCO during introduction of our paper to consider the matter more holistically because the survey, albeit limited, did reveal that all of the accidents detected involved failures in the control mechanisms rather than the hooks themselves.

Needless to say, certain delegations seized upon the probability that seafarers probably made mistakes in either operation or maintenance, as if that excused the need for a system, despite such errors, that prevented the resultant death or serious injury of seafarers. BIMCO, together with other industry partners (ICS, CLIA, IFSMA, IMCA, INTERCARGO, P&I Clubs, IPTA, INTERTANKO, ITF, NI, OCIMF and SIGTTO), had also produced a detailed and thorough engineering study – recognised by one delegation as probably the most detailed study ever conducted on release hooks – in which the important factor in the design of the hook was found to be its “stability”.

This refers to the hook mechanism’s ability to remain closed under load. Most existing hooks would fail the test suggested for this stability. ILAMA, the manufacturers’ representative body at the meetings, estimated that 90% of hooks would fail the test. Still, however, the flag states, with some notable exceptions, pursued the wear argument at the virtual exclusion of all but lip service to any other consideration. A few other voices raised concern but in the end, the debate ran out of time without the holistic discussion urged by BIMCO and without considering the vitally important issue of hook stability.

The rather depressing situation caused the attending industry group to make a statement that has been appended to the report as follows: “The observers from ICS, OCIMF, BIMCO, IMCA, CLIA, Intertanko, P+I, NI, ITF, IFSMA, as participants of the group, expressed serious concern regarding the amended draft Guidelines for evaluation and replacement of lifeboat release and retrieval systems, as agreed by most Member States, believing that the Guidelines required further development before they could be considered fit for purpose, in part as they did not address the stability of the hook system. As indicated in their submission ISWG LRH/2/3, the shipping industry co-sponsors considered that, in addition to the further development of the Guidelines, amendments to both the LSA Code and to SOLAS regulation III/1.5 were required in order to achieve this goal and it was requested that this issue was brought to the attention of the Committee.”

Until a solution hopefully is reached through the IMO, BIMCO would advise its members to take their own safety precautions and use FPDs. Forgetting to rig FPDs could result in fatality. Gravity applies at any time – during drills and in emergencies. FPDs should therefore be rigged on boats with on-load release hooks at all times except when the boat reaches the water.

BIMCO will in the near future issue more recommendations on the use of FPDs.

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