Jan 252011

Did the pilot ladder platform drag a seafarer to death?

Working in the dark with poor lighting and a partially slippery deck near an opening in the railing harbours particular risks, especially when you’re on your own rigging what Germany’s Federal Bueau of Maritime Casualty Investigation, the BSU, refers to as “an indeed permissible but potentially hazardous pilot ladder construction” aboard the containership EMS Trader in its just-published report.

Nobody saw the victim fall, or knows the moment it happened, so the exact sequence of events that led to yet another grieving family cannot be determined with precision. It seems likely that the pilot ladder platform had not been properly hooked into place, that the victim had wrapped the cord used to lowr the platform around his hand and that the platform fell dragging him overboard.

What is quite apparent is that safety culture was inadequate.

Says the BSU summary: “At approximately 06151 on 4 November 2009, the EMS Trader, a container vessel flying the flag of Antigua and Barbuda, cast off from the Port of Hamburg and sailed downstream on the Elbe under pilotage. It was still dark due to the time of year. Drizzle prevailed and the air temperature was about 5 °C. Water temperature was 8 °C and there was an ebb stream.

Shortly after casting off, a 27-year-old ordinary seaman from the Philippines went from the forecastle to the pilot station on the starboard side to make the pilot ladder ready for the forthcoming pilot transfer. A second ordinary seaman, who usually assisted in deploying the pilot ladder, was still working at the aft manoeuvring station and therefore the 27-year-old began alone. He fell overboard while deploying the platform. His absence was noticed shortly before the Elbe pilot boarded. The pilot platform was missing and the pilot gate open. The ordinary seaman was reported missing to the master on the bridge at 0632.

The master sounded the general alarm and called on the crew to assemble at the muster station. The Elbe pilot informed Vessel Traffic Centre Hamburg over VHF. An immediately launched search and rescue operation with numerous boats and support by a helicopter remained unsuccessful. The EMS Trader returned to the Port of Hamburg.

The body of the missing seaman was found near the scene of the accident on 29 November 2009.

He was not wearing a lifejacket and had not been secured with a line.

Says the BSU report: “The investigating authorities are the opinion that the embodied culture of safety on board is in need of improvement. Notwithstanding the documented qualifications of the deceased and the remainder of the crew, the sense of safety is clearly not pronounced to the extent that a specific risk to one’s own life is identified as such and treated accordingly. Routine can oust even well-known risks from one’s memory over time. This should be prevented by the consistent and sustainable training of crews.

Past accident investigations have shown that it is the standard tasks in particular, such as the deployment of gangways and pilot ladders, which are prone to being underestimated in terms of the associated risk of injury. It is therefore essential that appropriate measures are implemented to break down the routine on board and regularly point out work that is in essence potentially hazardous”.

Download the full report here.

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