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Routine equipment, routinely dangerous

  • The seaman fell off the platform and hung from his harness while shouting for help.
  • Rigging a pilot ladder while working over the side of a ship can be a hazardous task and it is imperative that all the precautions necessary to prevent a person falling overboard are taken.
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On 17 November 2011, a seaman was rigging a combination pilot ladder for boarding a harbour pilot on the container ship MSC Siena near Rottnest Island off the port of Fremantle, Western Australia. (The harbour pilot has local knowledge and expertly pilots the ship safely into the port). The ship’s crew had done the task more than 30 times in the past two months. The procedure for this routine task involved the seaman, wearing a full body harness, securing the pilot ladder, which is made of rope and wood to the bottom platform of the accommodation ladder (a more rigid, staircase-type ladder with handrails and a horizontal lower platform).

The weather was rough and the boatswain was supervising the crew rigging the pilot ladder. He saw a large wave suddenly strike the underside of the accommodation ladder’s bottom platform on which the seaman was working. The seaman fell off the platform and hung from his harness while shouting for help and trying to hold on to the pilot ladder. His legs were submerged in the rough seas which were pounding his body against the ship’s side, the platform and the pilot ladder, and repeatedly breaking his hold on the ladder.

An immediate search initiated by Australian search and rescue agencies failed to find the seaman.

The boatswain and two other crew members on deck tried to pull the seaman up by heaving on the harness rope. However, he was caught under the accommodation ladder’s bottom platform. After about 4 minutes, the seaman slipped out of his harness. Submerged, and making no attempt to swim, he drifted past the ship and the crew lost sight of him.

An immediate search initiated by Australian search and rescue agencies failed to find the seaman. His boots and all the lifebuoys thrown overboard by the crew were located and recovered.

Occurrences where a person has fallen overboard are not unusual in the maritime industry. In many cases, the person is either not found or recovered alive. In 2010, a report published by the United Kingdom’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch documented a number of such occurrences. Inadequate risk assessments and/or deficiencies with ladders and associated equipment generally, were found to have contributed to those occurrences.

Since the accident, MSC Siena’s management company has taken a number of steps to improve safety during the rigging of pilot ladders. Amongst other initiatives, it has implemented a major revision to its work permit system for working over the side, which now specifically addresses the task of rigging a combination pilot ladder. On board training has been improved and a fleet wide safety campaign was carried out.

The full investigation report, MO-2011-010, provides a detailed description of the accident, and the measures aimed at improving the safety of mariners.

 
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Last update 19 March 2013