The death of a crewman and injury of four others during a recent lifeboat drill has once again drawn attention to the danger posed by the complexity of modern lifeboats. Captain Anuj Velankar, P&I executive and Loss Prevention Advisor, UK P&I Club, reviews the issues around lifeboats and offers suggestions for safer usage:
“A study in 2014 by a UK safety group using accumulated data over a ten-year period indicated that incidents involving lifeboats and their launching systems had caused nearly 16% of the total lives lost by merchant mariners. Even more survived lifeboat incidents but suffered severe injuries of the spine and lower extremities. All of these accidents occurred during training exercises or drills, supervised by qualified, experienced seafarers.
“As the design of lifeboats has progressed, the requirement to understand the mechanics of launching operations has become more complicated. Merchant ships, such as tankers and bulk carriers, are progressively losing touch with the maintenance of wires and ropes due to lack of routine. Release mechanisms are often very poorly understood on ships today and this is leading to increasing detentions and delays for shipowners.
“In one incident, the UK Club dealt with an incident involving the release mechanism of a safety hook, which opened without any physical action by the crew. The lifeboat fell more than eight metres to the water, causing three crew members to sustain fractures to their ankles, legs and spine.
“An investigation revealed that the hoisting wire became kinked on the drum, the mass force of that action caused the hook to release without any contact by a crew member. The recommendation was to replace the safety hooks with a modified version which included a safety lock pin.
“Other lifeboat incidents cannot be explained by the experts. In another recent example, a lifeboat drill injury occurred when a boat was being raised by a winch to within a foot or two of being in the fully stowed position. The winch was automatically programmed to stop at this point, as the rest of the stowing was done by use of a hand crank on deck.
“All mechanisms were working properly but when a crew member inserted the hand crank to fully stow the boat, the hand crank suddenly began to rotate and whipped around and struck the crew member in the head causing injury and hearing loss. There was no brake malfunction and the incident could not be duplicated in further testing. There was corrosion on the electrical panel and some improper fuses in place, but the investigation was inconclusive as to the cause of the hand crank failure.
“A number of lessons can be learned from these unfortunate incidents. The entire crew should be capable of operating lifeboat systems and understanding the mechanics and procedures, even with minimum training or experience. Communication between the crew during drills must be clear, with confirmed completion of each step throughout the exercise. When the design of the lifeboat launch system and its components are complicated, members should consistently train on the operation, repair and maintenance of the entire lifeboat system.
“Continuous training of staff and rigorous risk assessment procedures are essential to counter lack of familiarity with lifeboats among crew members. The most effective training for the seafarers is for them to know why something is done in a particular way, and to better understand the procedures – not just remember them.
“Training should specifically address the launching of lifeboats, the correct maintenance and handling procedures in order to enable seafarers to safely use and maintain the equipment under all conditions.
“Drills must be reliable and safe, with minimum risk to those participating. The IMO amended SOLAS in 2006 and 2008 to address conditions under which lifeboat drills are conducted, introduce changes to the maintenance and inspection requirements, and drills without requiring crew members to be onboard the boat.
“These reviews included guidance for the launch of free-fall lifeboats during drills, and the servicing of launching systems and on-load/off-load release mechanisms. The intent is to prevent accidents and instill confidence in the crew members during abandon-ship drills.”