Frequent enclosed-space drills now required aboard SOLAS ships

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A new regulation requires crews aboard ships sailing internationally to participate in onboard training on the dangers of enclosed spaces and how to prevent injuries and deaths.

Vessels sailing under Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) must provide crew with enclosed-space drills every two months. The rule went into effect in January.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) amended SOLAS in an effort to prevent accidents involving confined spaces that contain dangerous gases or are devoid of oxygen. Examples include fuel tanks, cargo holds and anchor lockers. The instruction emphasizes prevention, including the use of gas-detection meters, as well as proper procedures for emergency response and first aid. 

The new rule resulted from recognition that there have been too many preventable deaths involving enclosed-space entry on ships, said Paul Drouin, a maritime safety consultant and president of in Quebec City. Worldwide, an average of two seafarers are killed each month in confined-space-entry incidents, according to an IMO report.

“The training is crucial. You need the awareness and the training, and of course the pre-identification is highly recommended,” said Drouin, who has published safety information about these dangers as editor of the Nautical Institute’s Mariners’ Alerting and Reporting Scheme (MARS).

The training teaches crews about ventilation, testing the atmosphere, temperature control, locking out internal systems, lighting, protective equipment, communications and emergency response.

“It’s aimed at crew that have enclosed-space duties — entering or staying outside for safety reasons — and the first-aid people who would respond to an injury,” he said.

A safety poster developed by the Marine Accident Investigators’ International Forum offers an at-a-glance warning to remind crew to “STOP … THINK … ASK” before they enter a potentially hazardous space.

The poster defines enclosed spaces as “a space that has any of the following characteristics: limited openings for entry and exit, inadequate ventilation, (or) is not designed for continuous worker occupancy.”

Crew should “stop” work unless they are sure that safety procedures have been initiated. They should “think” about whether they have permission to enter. The poster urges crew to “ask” for instructions.

Five panels illustrating examples of enclosed spaces are included as part of a safety poster produced by Marine Accident Investigators’ International Forum. An enclosed or confined space is defined as any space that has limited openings for entry or exit, offers inadequate ventilation or is not designed for continuous worker occupancy.

Courtesy Marine Accident Investigators’ International Forum

Aboard U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships, the master must appoint a gas free engineer to evaluate whether a space is safe to enter, according to the MSC’s safety management system. A stand-by person must be posted outside the area.

“No persons shall enter a confined space unless a current Gas Free Certificate is posted outside the space,” the MSC document states. 

Safety experts recommend that hand-held gas detection meters should be used. They typically test for the presence of dangerous gases including hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide. These can be present in fuel tanks and other machinery spaces. The detectors also warn the user when oxygen levels are too low for humans to breathe. Rust or certain cargoes can deplete oxygen. Another issue is paint fumes.

Labeling of the potentially risky compartment is the first step, said Drouin, a former casualty investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. 

“Best practice is all enclosed spaces are pre-identified — all tanks, all chain lockers. You have on the manhole covers big red letters (that say it’s an) enclosed space and follow the procedure,” Drouin said.

In emphasizing the need for protective equipment and proper rescue and resuscitation procedures, the new training attempts to address the problem of second and even third individuals becoming casualties because they entered the space in an effort to assist a shipmate who fell unconscious.
The training should help the crew gain a better appreciation of the dangers and reduce complacency throughout the ship, Drouin said.

“Some enclosed spaces are less evident than others,” he said. “Everybody’s aware that a fuel tank needs to be degassed and ventilated, but a potable water tank is just as enclosed. You won’t have dangerous gases in a potable water tank, but you could have a lack of oxygen.”

In a 2013 Safety Alert titled “Confined Space Entry Dangers,” the U.S. Coast Guard offered two other examples of enclosed-space hazards that may not be obvious. During a port state inspection, an inspector was entering a free-fall lifeboat when his gas meter alarmed. The boat contained carbon monoxide.

“Wind conditions had been blowing exhaust from the main stack into the lifeboat,” the Coast Guard wrote. “Although not a confined space by (regulatory) standards, the risks were the same.”

The second example occurred when an inspector was evaluating a deep ballast tank and had planned “to climb through a boxlike structure formed by floors and longitudinals in the No.1 bay, just aft of the collision bulkhead.” Prior to entering the lightening hole, his gas meter sounded, indicating low oxygen content.

“In both instances, the proper use of a gas meter likely prevented tragic consequences,” the Safety Alert stated. “The Coast Guard strongly recommends that all shipboard personnel and those associated with inspections, surveys or audits (understand) that hazardous atmospheres are frequently present aboard vessels and pose a great risk to personal safety.

“Besides the use of a personal gas meter for immediate protection, all organizations should have policies and procedures in place that address accessing these areas and make available the appropriate safety equipment for personnel.”

On SOLAS vessels, IMO is requiring training sessions every two months to accommodate the arrival of new crewmembers and as a reminder to existing personnel. 

“It’s very important to insist on repetitive training and refresher training,” Drouin said.

By Professional Mariner Staff