InterManager -reducing enclosed space deaths

One of the biggest causes of death onboard vessels today is enclosed spaces - people collapse due to the atmosphere or other reasons, and cannot be rescued. Captain Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of InterManager, suggested some better ways we can try to reduce the risk

One of the biggest causes of death onboard vessels is now enclosed spaces, where people collapse due to a non-breathable atmosphere or other reasons, and cannot be rescued, said Captain Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of InterManager.

The normal techniques shipping companies use to minimise the risk, procedures, training and posters, are not solving the problem. So we need to look at new ways to reduce the risk, he explained.

Examples of enclosed spaces are tanks for cargo, ballast or fuel, or a ‘void space’ between the vessel hull and a tank.

About three quarters of the deaths are seafarers, a quarter is people visiting a ship while it is in port.
It is possible that one day, the family of any deceased seafarer could sue the shipowner, for not having “provided sufficient environment for the seafarer to work.”

“A very good American lawyer will go after the owner.”

Didn’t follow procedures

When people have accidents, the investigations will often report that it was due to the person not following procedures. In other words, blaming the person who died.

People don’t realise that in a typical marine situation, the procedures are hard to follow, and seafarers are under pressure to not to follow them to the letter in order to save time, he said.

“A typical attitude from shipping company management and regulators is to say, we have given seafarers a lot of training into enclosed spaces, we have put up posters about the risks, so if they have accidents, it must be their fault.”

Chapter 15 of the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency “Code of Safe Working Practices for Merchant Seafarers”, 545 pages in total, available free online, has comprehensive instructions for working in enclosed spaces. Shipping company managers often keep it in their office.

But they do not often refer to it, Mr. Szymanski said. It is written in a language where people who do not have English as a first language would struggle to understand, he said.

And it would be a lot to memorise. Many seafarers are not confident enough in their relationships with their employers to say, they need to stop work while they go back to check it, he said.

More usually, seafarers are afraid to admit they don’t have a comprehensive understanding of it. “He doesn’t know it is OK to not know. That is the environment we have created,” he said.

The P+I Clubs can be held indirectly responsible for some of the problems – by selling shipping companies insurance against deliberate acts of seafarer negligence. This gives shipping companies an incentive to say that any problem is due to deliberate seafarer negligence if they can.

No safety report repository

Not all shipping companies are aware that the risks of enclosed spaces are so great. There is no central repository of safety incident reports in the maritime industry.

Data is collected by bodies such as the International Bulk Terminal Association and the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Board (MAIB), and these are well known, but not global.

The IMO has developed a central database of safety data called Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS). But not all states submit data to it, including Denmark and Germany, he said. “So it is empty. There are no statistics.”

No independent investigation

The inclination to “blame the seafarer” can be stronger when the investigation is not independent. It is not independent if (for example) the regulations, created by a body also doing the investigation, may be part of the cause.

In the US, the US Coastguard was the body responsible for investigating the El Faro container ship accident where 29 people died. “Did they find the US Coastguard made a mistake? Of course not. They said, ‘it must be the old man, he was told so many times not to sail’”.

Similarly, the Costa Concordia accident was investigated by Italian authorities. “Are they going to say anything about themselves? Of course not.”

InterManager survey

InterManager decided to try a different approach – to start by surveying seafarers to ask about the reasons they were taking risks. The survey only had a single question, “why are you killing yourselves in enclosed space”, and collected nearly 5,000 responses.

One of the biggest causes, cited by 30 per cent of respondents, was procedures and conflict within them.

For example, OCIMF’s ISGOTT (International Safety Guide for Oil Tankers and Terminals) says that seafarers “should not enter enclosed space in breathing apparatus unless it is an emergency”.

But typically Wall Wash Tests have to be carried out and many operators requires seafarers to wear breathing apparatus sets for this “operational activity,” he said.

Ship design

Not many seafarers saw it as their role to question how the ship has been designed, but they probably should do, he said.

There is usually just a single small cover which is removed to access the space, big enough for one person to squeeze through. “What if we’ve got someone having a heart attack, how are you going to get them out of there?”

Also the vents in the tank could be better designed to provide a breathable atmosphere.

“None of the people who designed enclosed space ever thought about humans working there,” he said.

There is a lot of industry discussion about unmanned ships. An unmanned ship would need to be designed with ballast tanks which never need inspections to be done on them – just as they would be designed to never need paper work to be done on them. But rather than wait for fully unmanned ships before we do these things, we could do it now.

Short term hire

Another issue is the employment relationship seafarers have, which strongly discourages them from complaining too much. 90 per cent of seafarers are hired for a specific vessel, so when they finish one contract, they frequently don’t have the next one lined up, and cannot be sure there will be an assignment. The other 10 per cent of seafarers have a contract saying they have a certain amount of notice. This is usually just the master and chief engineer.

“You were working until Friday, and you may work on Monday, you don’t know,” he said. “How do you relax on the weekend? Your wife says, what are you doing on Monday. You say, I don’t know, they will call me. What if they don’t call you?”

In such a working environment, “are you going to rock the boat, when you may not work again?”

30 years ago, 90 per cent of seafarers were employed by owners. Fourth engineers could see their steady progression up the ranks within the same company. But today, when people are asked where they think they will be in ten years, they typically say, they don’t know, they just hope to be still working at sea.

Any new master would be very reluctant to pick up the phone and say, “I’ve got a problem”.

Lack of trust

When people are working with people they don’t know, there is no trust. “People are very concerned that they don’t know who they are getting. They it takes months [to gain trust].”

If people feel comfortable with their fellow crew members, they don’t see the need to check what they are doing. But the opposite is true. “He will be saying, why are you checking, I am an experienced chief officer. I say, well I don’t know you Henrik. I am just covering myself.”

Seafarers are not formally trained how to inspect the structures of tankers. “We don’t know how to take a hammer and learn where to knock it. We learn on the job, provided we have a good mentor.”
Class societies teach their surveyors a special structure for writing reports. Seafarers are also expected to write reports about tanks, but without this knowledge.
“There’s no point in sending a chief engineer to the bunker tank, he has never been there with a surveyor’s hat,” he said.


In the second phase of the InterManager project, it identified the different stakeholders for the enclosed space issue, including class, shipyard and company senior management.

“A lot of [these people] do not see themselves as part of the problem,” he said. They believe that preventing enclosed space accidents is the responsibility of seafarers themselves.

“But design of the tank is approved by class. Why is class not asking themselves the question what if, how?

And people ashore can be “oblivious to what happens on a ship”.

Never been used

When Mr. Szymanski takes a ferry, he will often present his business card to the administrative office and ask if he can visit the bridge. He asks the second officer if they issue enclosed space certificates, and if they have oxygen meters onboard.

The answer is nearly always “now we have one, until last year we had zero,” he said.

It seems that 99 per cent of ships in the world which are not tankers have just one, which is the minimum.

And the oxygen meter “is in the chief officer’s cabin with a blanket, saying ‘do not touch, it is for inspections.’”

Carrying an oxygen meter is an essential safety precaution, because the concentration of oxygen can vary in different parts of a tank.


Then there is the question of how someone is rescued if they collapse in an enclosed space. The hatch to enter tanks can be a little wider than one person – so impossible for one person to carry another out. They would also need to take in rescue equipment, such as a rope, torch and resuscitator.

It is possible to buy an oxygen resuscitator, a device using positive pressure to inflate the lungs of an unconscious person who is not breathing, in order to keep them oxygenated and alive. “Even the best companies are not investing in that equipment,” he said.

Sometimes people enter enclosed spaces without realizing they are enclosed spaces. For example, a cargo hold which was previously full of wood chips. “They don’t know there’s no oxygen down there. Within minutes they are dead.

Safe manning levels is another issue. A tanker might have only three crew members on deck, which need to periodically visit 35 tanks. If two people go into the tank, there is only one further person available to rescue them if something goes wrong. “How is this going to work?”





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