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Save your breath – the deadly danger of enclosed spaces

Save your breath – the deadly danger of enclosed spaces
You might sometimes wonder why seafaring, in this 21st technology-infested century, clings, after fishing, to its title as the world’s second riskiest occupation. Ships mostly know where they are, sailors no longer have to reef the mizzen topsails in a gale off Cape Horn, so why do death and injury remain such a significant accompaniment to modern seafaring?

You can consider the moving work-platform, the unfenced machinery, ropes under tension or the “slips, trips and falls” which the P&I clubs tell us rack up a high proportion of their personal injury claims. But if you are looking for a regular, sinister killer of people on ships, look no further than casualties caused by entry into enclosed spaces.

They don’t make many headlines, but that is because they come in small numbers; ones, twos and threes, carried ashore in their body-bags, after they have been extricated from tanks, from holds or other compartments where they discovered, too late, that there was insufficient oxygen to support life.

We do not know how many of them there are, with only some flag states sufficiently capable to collect their accident statistics, but the best guess is they aggregate to hundreds across the world fleet. They do not occur nearly as often on tankers as aboard every other type of ship, which ought to provoke questions about what tanker operators are doing right, and why the rest remain so incapable of stopping the rot?

It tends not to be the young and inexperienced who dive into a tank to carry out some routine task, but people who ought to have known better. And the reason these tragedies happen with multiples, can be laid at the door of altruism, or recklessness, which sees one or two rescuers rushing into action, with no equipment, after a shipmate has been overcome and themselves succumbing. A breath is all it takes, when there is no air to breathe.

Is it that they are just taking short cuts, as with the engineer who took a few short steps down a ladder into a water tank to check the contents, and never returned alive? Do they not realise the speed with which a cargo will deplete the oxygen in a hold, a few hours after the hatches have been secured? After all, they saw the dockers walking around in that cargo space perfectly happily before the load had been completed. Perhaps they just do not realise the ability of a really extensive range of cargo to gobble up the oxygen which surrounds it. Scrap, biofuels, coal, timber, steel or any cargo that rusts, woodchips, most grains – many might seem innocuous, but all can be lethal to the unwary.

A bulker makes an unscheduled halt in the Azores, to land the bodies of the master, mate and and a seaman, all suffocated in hold containing soya beans en route from the Plate to Italy. Six weeks later, there is an identical tragedy, with a further trio of deaths, with the same cargo, from the same port to the same destination.

You might have thought that news would travel fast in shipping circles, but the two ships operated for different companies under different flags, so who might have transmitted the life-saving information? There is just no machinery that will do the job, yesterday, or today. Too much of our industry operates in silos, and that is another problem.

A recent workshop in London was held by the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency to try and gain some insights into this seemingly intractable problem. Might better awareness training make a difference? Proper risk assessments and compulsory drills? Might more information in the shape of DVDs and films, leaflets, posters and notices make a difference? Should administrations spread more widely some of the discipline and rigour of the well managed tanker? Perhaps, it was suggested, that people enter enclosed space too readily. Why does a small and hard pressed crew ever have to get into enclosed spaces?

Leave it until the vessel gets to port and to an expert team, who can enter these often difficult spaces with all the breathing and rescue equipment that will be needed. One suggestion was to widen training far beyond young cadets at college, to senior officers and above all, to shore side managers who need to know what the issues are, and why so many people still enter enclosed spaces and end up dead.