Deathboats, not Lifeboats

It is hard to think of another piece of safety equipment that inspires in those it is meant to save as much mistrust and dread as the lifeboat.

Such is its reputation that some have renamed it the “deathboat”, reflecting the now widely-held view that more lives have been lost than saved by lifeboats, although in their defence they saved lives when successfully used in the evacuation of the blazing Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago.

Any feelings of relief that may have followed that success will have been short-lived as a series of accidents during drills in the intervening period has seen more deaths and injuries. The most recent – on April 15, five days short of the first anniversary of the explosion and fire on the rig – took the lives of two young officers and left a rating seriously injured. At least two other fatal incidents have occurred this year.

Some estimates put the number of deaths and injuries from incidents involving lifeboats (the term also embraces rescue boats, also prone to failure) at several hundred over the last 20 years but, whatever the true figure, it is now believed by many to be the biggest single cause of fatalities among seafarers. It is certainly, some grimly point out, far more than those who have died at the hands of pirates.

The cruel irony that in the vast majority of cases the accidents occur during mandatory exercises cannot be overstated. Launching lifeboats in genuine emergencies is relatively rare but crews must still be able to carry out the operation and the equipment must be well-maintained. The message from the fatal accidents, however, is: “If you don’t drill you might die, but the drill itself might kill you.”

Just as the Deepwater Horizon incident showed the benefits of regular drills, the fatal incident on a Chinese tanker a year earlier revealed the price of lack of maintenance when technical problems on both lifeboats on the blazing vessel contributed to one of the three deaths. The investigation also revealed logbook entries detailing “satisfactory” lifeboat exercises were false.

Given the history of accidents and the various but largely unsuccessful attempts made to prevent them, news of yet another fatal incident, one on a relatively new ship using recommended “fall prevention devices”, prompts almost numbed feelings, as any sense of outrage has already been exhausted. A weary frustration and impotent rage at the failure of all those involved to solve such a long-running problem is accompanied by a growing conviction that only something truly radical can bring an end to one of the industry’s biggest scandals.

The problem, however, is that there is no single cause that can be identified and readily resolved. Much of the attention has been focused on the on-load system, with many release hooks using that design condemned five years ago by the UK’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) as “inherently unsafe and therefore not fit for purpose”.

But other investigations have directed the blame elsewhere: poor maintenance, inadequately trained crews or over-complicated designs, for example. A new element was introduced after an incident in February this year in which a Filipino seaman died and two others were injured when a fall wire parted, causing the rescue boat the victims were in to fall 29m into the sea.

Earlier this month the MCA’s sister agency, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), issued a safety alert, drawing attention to the fact that the rescue boat had been over-weight and exceeded the safe working load of the davit, although investigators pointed out that safety margins meant this alone should not have caused the failure of the fall wire.

The revelation that the excess weight had been caused by water retained within the rescue boat’s foam-filled compartments – a problem also found on several sister ships’ rescue boats from the same manufacturer – has added another unsuspected twist to the tale.

Confusion over who or what to blame is also evident on a video-sharing website where one particular but unspecified incident in 2009 is the subject of a fierce online debate over whether anybody was actually killed or injured in what appears to be dramatic footage of a lifeboat falling into the sea from an offshore installation*.

The parties involved range from regulators and safety inspectors to manufacturers. The former includes the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and its membership of flag states and their Recognised Organisations, while the latter may only provide one part of the system (the boat or the davits), with choice of system or type often dictated by the shipbuilder.

This diffusion of responsibility presents anyone trying to fire a magic bullet with a target that is not only moving but multiplying. There have also been suggestions that attempts to find solutions at the IMO have been hampered by vested interests and obtuse technical arguments.

BIMCO, together with other industry organisations, has proposed that the use of fall prevention devices such as locking pins should be made mandatory and implemented immediately as an interim measure until on-load release hooks and the associated mechanisms have been proven safe, in accordance with the latest standards. However, up to now this safety precaution has not been widely supported within IMO.

In the meantime, while the arguments over the problem and solutions rage on, owners, through their P&I clubs, will keep on having to pay out compensation claims to the dependants of those killed and to the injured. The bill, with USD 200-500,000 the cost of a typical incident, already runs into several hundred millions of dollars. A few out-of-court settlements have also been made in cases alleging gross negligence by either shipowners or lifeboat manufacturers.

As the MCA report pointed out, if an accident of the type that has mainly affected cargo ships were to happen during an emergency on a passenger ship “the resulting consequence in terms of the number of lives lost could be catastrophic”. What was implied was that the potential cost of compensation could be financially catastrophic.

That a safety scandal might never have been allowed to develop if the victims had included passengers from rich and litigious countries only feeds the suspicion among seafarers that their lives and well-being are under-valued.

By Andrew Guest


*Readers can view the video by searching the internet for “lifeboat accidents +AD22”.

Editor’s Note: Andrew Guest is a freelance journalist.

Feature articles written by outside contributors do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of BIMCO.

Date: 27.04.11

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