Coast Guard says carelessness caused electrocution of young engineer

Carelessness while testing a circuit-breaker led to the electrocution death of a chemical tanker’s third assistant engineer near Galveston, Texas, in 2009, U.S. Coast Guard investigators have concluded.

Christopher Erickson, 24, was killed aboard S/R Wilmington while he and the first engineer were conducting an electrical function check using a “makeshift” test lead, or “pigtail,” the Coast Guard said in its casualty investigation report. They were replacing a circuit breaker that failed and had been removed during the previous watch.

The test lead had a four-prong plug, 6-foot insulated cord and three bare exposed wires that were to connect power from an electrical test panel to a solenoid. That test lead was plugged into the test panel before the pigtail was connected to the solenoid, the report said.

Christopher Erickson, 24, was electrocuted while serving as a third assistant engineer aboard the chemical tanker S/R Wilmington in 2009. Erickson was an ex-football captain and highly honored graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy. (Photo courtesy Massachusetts Maritime Academy)

Erickson “picked up the aforementioned electrical test lead while it was energized and before it was connected to the circuit breaker to be tested,” the investigative report said. “His hands then made contact with the bare exposed wire working end conductors. The contact with the bare exposed wires of the makeshift test lead caused (him) to be electrocuted.”

The investigators said both engineers made mistakes that led to the fatal casualty.

The Coast Guard said the first engineer “violated the ship’s rule by not following the instructions on the placard above the 480-volt switch on the electrical test panel, not conducting a new job hazard analysis after changing personnel, not wearing personal protective equipment and not communicating a hazard to other personnel in the electrical workshop under his supervision.”

Erickson “placed himself in a hazardous situation by picking up the electrical test lead (not treating the circuit as live), not ensuring a proper job hazard analysis was conducted and not wearing protective equipment,” the report said.

The accident happened Jan. 7, 2009, while S/R Wilmington was anchored at the Galveston Fairway Anchorage. The 617-foot vessel was operated by SeaRiver Maritime Inc., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corp.

Witnesses reported that the first engineer and Erickson “never discussed the entire scope of the circuit breaker repair and replacement job,” the Coast Guard wrote. Erickson “was under the impression that engineers were going to connect the bare wires of the working end conductors of the test lead to the blue wires of the undervoltage release solenoid on the new breaker using wire nuts … intending to use testing equipment (volt meter) on the bare wires of the working end conductors to see if the 480-volt receptacle was working properly,” the report said.

“This incident may have been prevented by a thorough briefing,” the Coast Guard stated.

A work permit was written up for the removal of the failed circuit breaker on the previous watch, but no new job hazard analysis was discussed for the testing and replacement. The Coast Guard said the engineering officers aboard the vessel often didn’t fill out new work permits before each job in the electrical workshop. The work permits specify potentially hazardous conditions and lock-out, tag-out procedures. The engineers didn’t always wear protective equipment when handling live circuits.

Ray Botto, a SeaRiver spokesman, noted that the Coast Guard investigators determined that basic electrical safety practices were already in place but weren’t followed. The company responded to the death by checking all of its safety equipment and modernizing test panels.

“Immediately following this tragic event, SeaRiver examined and verified that existing test benches and testing cords across the fleet were properly functioning and insulated,” Botto said in a statement.

“As an additional enhancement, SeaRiver worked with a leading equipment manufacturer to custom-design and install new panels, which include state-of-the-art multi-tiered safety features,” he said. “The test panel manufacturer also supplied specially designed and insulated testing cords (•pigtails’) for use with the new panels.”

The new test panels were approved by the American Bureau of Shipping, he said.

“Engine department personnel received training regarding the use of these new panels and will continue to receive periodic refresher training regarding safe work practices,” Botto said. “Furthermore, we enhanced and renewed our personnel protective equipment and supplied new insulated electrical work tools and work benches on all vessels.”

The fatality prompted the Coast Guard to issue an April 2009 marine safety alert urging vessel operators to ensure proper electrical safety procedures, training and supervision.

Erickson was a 2007 graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he was captain of the football team. He was cadet chief engineer during his senior year. The Coast Guard said Erickson had been on board S/R Wilmington for 52 days, but rarely worked in the electrical workshop, which is separate from the engine compartment.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff