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Safety At Sea - Magazine - Features

05 Feb 2009

Research into lifeboat accidents has shown that hook failure remains a major threat to seafarer welfare. Christopher Browne looks at some of the radical solutions that are currently being considered by the industry

Lifesaving appliances:

Off the hook

Research into lifeboat accidents has shown that hook failure remains a major threat to seafarer welfare. Christopher Browne looks at some of the radical solutions that are currently being considered by the industry

A growing body of research into lifeboat safety is pointing to hook failure as a major cause of accident and injury. At the heart of the problem are poor or inconsistent designs.

Project 555, a recent report from the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) confirms that most serious lifeboat accidents are caused by on-load release hook problems. “Through premature or unexpected opening of one or both hooks during a routine test or drill, the lifeboat either becomes suspended vertically or drops completely into the water, typically resulting in injury or fatality to the crew,” the MCA report’s authors stated.

The MCA report found that even though on-load hooks and lifeboat davit-release systems may satisfy IMO’s 1986 and 1990 regulations, many designs are “inherently unsafe and therefore not fit for purpose”. Less “severe consequences” were said to result from other causes of lifeboat accidents such as failing winches, falls, gripes, tricing and bowsing.

Marine broker and charterer Mark Humphreys, who recently carried out a marine safety study as part of a BSc degree course, reported that the sheer volume of models on the market is exacerbating problems with on-load release hooks. “A plethora of over 70 designs causes unfamiliarity for seafarers,” Humphreys said in his study. He explained: “Hook designs not only pose problems for users, but [also] maintenance and quality. Evidence also shows pirated spare parts and equipment being used by companies to save economically.”

Drill danger

Humphreys’ findings refer to a 2001 report by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) showing that more than half the fatal incidents on UK-flagged ships and in UK waters during the period 1986–2001 were caused by hook malfunctions. New MAIB figures for 2002–2007 show that more than 70% of lifeboat accidents on UK-flagged ships and vessels in UK waters occurred during practice drills, exercises and maintenance tests rather than in actual rescues. Out of 72 lifeboat incidents in those five years, an MCA surveyor and no fewer than 45 crew members suffered injuries ranging from minor cuts and bruises to crushing injuries and head, spine, pelvis and limb fractures.

These are national statistics that have international implications. The most worrying aspect is that even in these controlled situations, hook failures and launching problems accounted for one-third of the incidents.

P&I data reveals the cost of the problem. The UK P&I Club has added its voice to the chorus of concern, stating that in the 1991–2006 period, 75% of its accident claims above $100,000 involved unintentional hook release. “Unplanned hook release during routine activity has been identified as the event most likely to cause serious injury or damage,” it said.

Out of 15 reported lifeboat incidents during those 15 years, four people were killed, seven suffered multiple injuries and four had back, head and shoulder problems. These claims cost the club almost $5M in payouts. “Lifeboats must be kept in peak condition and their crews properly trained, as they must be ready very suddenly for very dangerous situations,” said Karl Lumbers, the club’s loss-prevention director.

“There is probably an inherent design error in the manufacturing of on-load hooks,” Harry Klaverstijn, chairman of the International Life-saving Appliance Manufacturers’ Association technical committee, told SASI. “Although they have radically improved since IMO guideline MSC 1206 was introduced in 2006, there are still a lot of inherently poorly designed hooks being used on ships with lifeboats.

“One way to solve the current problems and reduce the number of accidents is to add safety features at the manufacturing stage, such as safety bolts and security devices, and to introduce more maintenance requirements,” said Klaverstijn.

No standard for hook safety

Allan Graveson, senior national secretary of Nautilus UK, pointed SASI to a different solution: “What lies at the root of the problem is that many of the hook manufacturers do not want one standard design,” he argued. “As each hook is patented it would affect their worldwide sales, and having one standard hook would also stifle innovation. It means that when the IMO and the shipping industry ask for co-operation in devising a new and safer standalone hook, the manufacturers tend to clam up.”

The simple answer, said Graveson, is to produce one carefully researched, standalone design that “meets all the opening, closing and operational criteria and is easy to maintain. This is particularly important with today’s shipping fleet, which has a global workforce of seafarers who have varying standards of training and mastery of English that can complicate operations when different types of hook are being used.”

Another problem is the inferior quality of some lifeboats, he said. “Not only are too many lifesaving appliance manufacturers producing unsafe products, but some shipowners, particularly from China, prefer to cut their costs and save money by buying cheap lifeboats instead of good quality ones that can be easily maintained.”

Although the MAIB believes current lifeboat evacuation systems are flawed, Steve Clinch, the bureau’s deputy chief inspector, noted that there have been some notable successes. One was the rescue operation after the UK-flagged container ship MSC Napoli started to list in a force 9 gale off England’s southwest coast in January 2007 and had to be beached and broken up in Lyme Bay, Cornwall.

“MSC Napoli was noteworthy because it was a very good example of how the on-load release gear can be an effective safety tool if well maintained, and if the crew are properly trained and have confidence in the equipment,” Clinch explained. “At the time of the abandonment, MSC Napoli was grappling with extreme weather conditions, yet every member of the crew of 26 got off the vessel safely and into one lifeboat. They suffered no more than several cases of severe seasickness due to the dire weather conditions.”

In 2000, just one year before the MAIB published its first report into lifeboat safety, the IMO launched a review of large passenger ship evacuation. This led to regulatory reviews and a recent IMO initiative, Alternative Designs and Arrangements for the LSA Industry, which will be considered from 1 July 2010 – a lead time of almost 18 months.

Too many designs

In the meantime, a group of concerned operators, trade associations and training bodies has formed the Industry Lifeboat Group (ILG) to try to bring down the accident toll. The ILG includes representatives from BIMCO, the UK government’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE), Intertanko, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the MAIB, the MCA, the Nautical Institute and the P&I clubs.

Co-ordinated by John Murray, senior marine adviser at the International Chamber of Shipping, the ILG will recommend “measures to prevent accidents with lifeboats” at the 16 March meeting of the IMO’s Design and Equipment sub-committee, as well as the IMO’s Correspondence Group on LSAs.

The ILG’s short-term aim is to decide whether lifeboats should continue to be used for drills. In the medium term it will aim to draft guidelines for fall-preventer devices such as synthetic safety strops and locking pins. Its long-term aims will be to identify and introduce safe-release mechanisms such as a standard hook design, promise the use of durable, corrosion-resistant construction materials in release equipment, and to make sure lifeboats are released at a safe height on, or immediately above, the water.

“Lifeboats work in an aggressive environment, so all the key mechanical parts they use need to be very strong and anti-corrosive,” Murray told SASI. “There are too many hook manufacturers producing too many different designs and they can’t all be right. There is a lot of commercial pressure in the industry and so far only one manufacturer we have talked to has produced a design that meets all the criteria needed for training, familiarity and better performance.”

The advantage of the ILG, Murray explained, is that it will speed up the time it normally takes the IMO to pass new regulations. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; however, we will be producing draft amendments to the LSA Code,” he said.

Whether lifeboats represent the ideal ship evacuation system is another matter. Humphreys’ report also refers to data from an EU-funded Safecrafts report – due to be published in March 2009 – that shows that in calm conditions there is a likely success rate of only 55% from launch to final recovery in global lifeboat rescues, and just 43% in sea state six when weather conditions are poor and more volatile.

While the industry considers solutions to the problems of lifeboat launching, other evacuation systems continue to appear on the market. Viking Life-Saving Equipment has produced two chute and slide marine evacuation systems (MESs) for cruise ships and large passenger vessels. Tests have shown that they can evacuate up to 370 people in 30 minutes. There is some industry concern about MESs, as several have failed mid-operation, but Safecraft data shows that they are generally safer than lifeboats, both operationally and from the crew-handling angle.

Another idea put forward by Graveson would be to abolish the release-hook method of launching and to adopt freefall and float-free lifeboats.

“Float-free lifeboats would be especially useful for passengers on cruise ships and ferries,” he pointed out, “as they are easier to access than the davit-launched versions, evacuate ships more quickly and are far safer in rough seas and poor weather conditions.”


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