In The Case Of The Electric Assassin I suggested that, if you’re going to enter an enclosed space without the proper equipment or precautions then dig two graves, one for yourself and one for the poor sods who’ll try and rescue you. That recommendations was validated by two virtually identical incidents, several thousand miles apart, within just 24 hours.
There’ll be little wonder that maritime casualty investigators grind their teeth in frustration when these enclosed space incidents occur, partly because they keep happening and partly because little is done to stop them happening.
On 20th May this year at Port Everglades a dock superviser, Hyman Sooknanan, entered an enclosed space aboard Madelaine, a 110 metre cargo ship, to investigate a suspected leak of argon from a container gas tank.
He didn’t return, nor did he respond to radio calls. Worried, a second docker, James Cason, wrapped a shirt around his face and entered the space to find out what happened to Sooknanan. He didn’t reappear either. Now a third man, Rene Robert Duterte did the same, with the same result.
In 20 minutes, three men were dead, the last two because they’d tried the help the first.
Argon isn’t chemically poisonous but it does displace oxygen in the air, asphyxiating the victim. It gets you almost without warning and wrapping something around your face isn’t going to stop it happening when there’s no oxygen in the atmosphere to breathe.
On 22nd May in Chongming Dadong Shipping Yard, Shanghai, 21st May in Florida, three Filipino seafarers died and 10 were injured, all from a single vessel, the Hakone, in an incident involving leakage of another suffocating gas, carbon dioxide.
As research by Don Sheetz of the Vanuatu Registry for the Maritime Accident Investigators International Forum shows, these were not isolated incidents. In just three months, Sheetz gathered reports on 120 enclosed space incidents with 228 from just 16 flag registries over a period of about 10 years. With figures from the largest registries still not available, some estimate that the true figure may be as high as 1,000 deaths.
Says Sheetz:”We are concerned that this is just the tip of the iceberg and will ultimately become a larger issue than, say, dropping of lifeboats.”
The numbers are simply too high, and the incidents too frequent, to dismiss as unfortunate one-offs. It is unsatisfactory to conclude that it was the victims’ faults, because they, and their would-be rescuers, didn’t follow procedures, and close the book
What they show is that there is something deeply wrong with the system and with the industry that allows deaths on such a scale without a qualm. If there were qualms, there would be a solid drive to find a solution and there isn’t one. It’s a record of which the industry should be ashamed.
It is self-evident that training is inadequate in the first place and the necessary drills are not being carried out onboard or alongside in the procedures for safe entry and rescue from confined spaces.
Training will be ineffective unless backed-up by a positive management level commitment to managing safety, assessing competence onboard and developing a safety culture from company head-office to the master to the deputy chief assist cook’s chief assistant deputy. All too often putting a safety management system on a ship is little more than a butt-covering exercise to avoid liability when the worse happens.
Let’s look at it another way. If the estimates of deaths in enclosed spaces are reasonably accurate, and there’s every reason to believe they are, then enough lives have been lost to put crew on 40 to 50 cargo ships. Currently the industry is going through paroxysms of recruitment to fulfill manning needs of the future, maybe they should spend just a little more time trying to keep alive the ones they’ve already got.