Brief Analysis of Lifeboat Accidents

Lifeboats onboard merchant vessels although designed to save lives during emergencies on occasion they end up taking lives during drills or actual emergencies. The cause of a lifeboat accident can be easily attributed to human mistakes but a more thorough analysis may reveal that other factors may be the actual root cause of the accident. Basically the main causes of lifeboat accidents can be categorized to inadequate design, inadequate maintenance and inadequate training.

Design

Poorly designed hydrostatic release units that jam in the up position may result in the system to remain ‘armed’ and therefore a release of the lifeboat may happen at any moment.

Use of materials which are proved to be inadequate for the marine environment is another problem, since most probably such arrangement will end up rusting. But even when the right materials are being used, a seafarer has to face complex lifeboat systems and sophisticated designs that in a case of an emergency are proven to make the situation more dangerous than safe.

Another factor that may cause a lifeboat accident is the use of substandard procedures during the production process of a lifeboat system. For example if a suspension link has not been treated in line with specific accepted standards and specifications it may be easily corroded and due to the stresses that are being applied it may develop cracks which consequently will lead to the failure of the specific part. Moreover, if the welds on specific components of a lifeboat system (e.g. davit arms) are of inferior quality they can also lead to an accident due to material failure.

Inadequate ergonomic design can also lead to accidents and injuries. Lifeboat control systems which may look alike can eventually lead to the use of the wrong lever and instruction markings can be confusing. The design of seats and restraints is also very important since they are associated with spinal injuries due to the forces that are being developed during the release of the lifeboat at the sea.

The difficulty in identifying if on-load release systems have been reset or not is also another problem that is attributed to inadequate design. When on-load release gear has not been properly reset and this hasn’t been noticed by the crew then there is a possibility of an accident occurring. Poor design makes the gear difficult to inspect and if reference markings are not clearly stated then the use of the systems is left totally to the seafarer choice, who may not be sure on how exactly to operate the systems.

As a result of the issues mentioned above seafarers make attempts to rectify the problem on their own. A modification of lifeboat systems although being done by the seafarers in order to manage the operation of the system it is not considered as safe working practice since it can lead to an accident.

Maintenance

Maintenance onboard some vessels is inadequate and not in line with industry standards and regulations. It is not unusual to hear of vessels where PSC reports ended up with a bunch of deficiencies related to safety equipment.

Lifeboat maintenance may require for the lifeboat to be lowered and the seafarer who is responsible for the maintenance may work in or on the lifeboat. This means that in case of failure of any component of the lifeboat system an injury or death could occur.

Another problem associated with the maintenance of the lifeboats is the instructions and the guidelines contained within their technical manuals. These are usually either too complex and not comprehensible for the seafarer or badly written and with general instructions which are not system specific to the lifeboat equipped. Such technical manuals can confuse the seafarer who as a result may not know exactly what job is needed to be done or what kind of maintenance material is required (e.g. lubricating oil).

The forward hook released itself suddenly and without warning, as a result the forward end of the boat dropped, leaving it suspended vertically from the aft fall . Three seamen were thrown into the water (source MAIB)

Pilot launch rescuing the three crew members (source MAIB)

Training

In many lifeboat accidents it is not uncommon to find that the root cause was inadequate training. A noticeable number of lifeboat accidents happen during training drills.

Routine lifeboat drill involving the crew members, due to a technical problem with one of the wenches the lifeboat was left dangling. No one was injured.

For that reason IMO published MSC/Circ. 1326 stating that:
SOLAS regulation III/19.3.3.3 requires each lifeboat to be launched, and manoeuvred in the water by its assigned operating crew, at least once every three months during an abandon ship drill. However, the regulation, whilst requiring each lifeboat to be manoeuvred in the water by its assigned operating crew, does not require the assigned operating crew to be on board when the lifeboat is launched. The assigned operating crew should not be required to be on board life boats during launching, unless the master, within the authority conferred to him by paragraph 5.2 of the ISM Code, considered, taking into account all safety aspects, that the lifeboat should be launched with the assigned operating crew onboard

The irony is that although all seafarers undergo extensive and detailed training programs prior to getting qualified to work onboard (not to mention the regulatory training requirements that are needed) still inadequate training proves to be one of the root causes of lifeboat accidents.

This has to do mainly with the fact that training conducted onboard may not cover all the aspects of the operation of a lifeboat system, the technical manuals that are being used, as mentioned earlier, may be substandard or not in the working language of the seafarers and of course the time that is required in order to conduct the training may be shrunk due to operational requirements onboard.

For training onboard ships to be effective and not just another task that needs to be done, the teaching methods should go beyond the standard approach of “how to”. It is of vital importance that the reason for following specific procedures is explained to the seafarers in order to fully understand when and why they should follow specific procedures and furthermore to make it easier for them to remember procedures when under pressure in an actual emergency.

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