Marine safety rails grabbing attention of North American operators


From their origin in the world of sailing to deployment on workboats across Europe, marine safety rail systems have expanded their foothold and are now gaining traction in the North American commercial maritime market.

Leading the adopters is the Sabine Pilots Association of southeast Texas, which ordered a Harken TR31 track-and-car safety rail system for its newest vessel to keep pilots and deck hands safe in rough weather. The 53-foot Port Arthur, built by Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding and delivered in 2016, is the first U.S. boat to use the Harken system, which allows personnel to stay hooked in from port to starboard while working outside conventional handrails.

“We all carry a bag or a backpack with portable pilot units (for navigation), so sometimes the deck hand has to send that up on a separate line. Having him tethered to the (TR31) rail frees up both of his hands without having to worry about falling overboard,” said Capt. Charles LaHaye Jr., presiding officer of the Sabine Pilots. “This adds an extra measure of safety for guys out on deck. When the pilot boat comes alongside the ship and the crew has to walk on a deck only a few feet wide with no handrails, (they) can go completely around the house.”

The system allows a crewmember, harnessed and tethered to the trolley, right, to move freely along the length of the rail.

Courtesy Harken

In addition to the Harken TR31 — the TR stands for “tight radius” — other safety rails advancing in the commercial maritime market include systems from Ronstan and Hadrian. Ronstan’s system features a tandem sliding-car assembly; Hadrian’s is equipped with a mobile anchor that runs on a pre-shaped rail or track that mirrors the handrails fitted around the wheelhouse.

The car-and-track systems from Ronstan and Harken are similar in the way they operate, but their fixtures and fastener designs differ, said Scot West, managing director of Ronstan International of Portsmouth, R.I., a manufacturer of sailboat hardware and other marine components.

Ronstan installs 90 percent of its safety rail systems on luxury megayachts, West said. The anodized aluminum systems are attractive to owners of yachts 100 feet long and up, he said, providing “absolute access to the hull for window washing, hull cleaning and maintenance on the sides of the boats.”

Dug Seago, chief engineer for Hadrian Safety Rails, performs an annual inspection of the company’s equipment aboard St. Nicholas, a pilot boat operated by the Harwich Haven Authority in the United Kingdom. The carriage system provides fall protection and restraint for multiple users.

Courtesy Hadrian Safety Rails

West said Ronstan also installs safety rail systems on non-certified pilot boats, employing cars that run on an I-beam track “that needs to be bent a little more (to) allow for movement.” For mega-yacht systems designed to protect crewmembers from long falls, cars run on a T-track with more specific plunger stops.

Hadrian’s systems are used regularly on police and customs launches, hospital vessels, survey launches, passenger transfer vessels and oil recovery vessels, said John Wells, director of the U.K.-based company. Hadrian rails with de-icing capability were installed in 2014 on a new series of boats for the Atlantic Pilotage Authority of Halifax, Nova Scotia, increasing safety in the winter months when ice is a problem on decks and for equipment.

“In addition to running the engine-cooling water through the tube handrails (and installing) heated wind screens and under-deck heating, the Hadrian safety system is kept free of ice by a heat-trace cable running up the middle of the extruded rail,” Wells said. “This was kept switched on 24/7 to keep the Hadrian system above zero even when the St. Lawrence Seaway was frozen over.”

While safety rails are gaining more acceptance in North America, manufacturers headquartered outside of Europe continue to look to the continent — where the sector is more firmly established — for its requirements on fitting the equipment on workboats. Both Ronstan and Pewaukee, Wis.-based Harken certify their products to the European EN795 standard.

Hadrian’s Dug Seago, tethered to a forward safety rail, walks the deck of St. Nicholas as it passes a containership in Harwich Haven. The company’s aluminum system can be installed during the build process or retrofitted to existing vessels.

Courtesy Hadrian Safety Rails

While there are no U.S. regulations calling for the use of safety rails on commercial vessels, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Subchapter M, adopted last year, states that operators need to provide for the safety of crewmembers and plan for their recovery should they fall overboard, said Matt Luedtke, industrial division manager for Harken. He predicts that regulations in the U.S. will evolve to mandate the use of safety rail systems, but it will be a slow process.

“More and more U.S. companies are starting to adopt these systems knowing they need to offer better safety for the crew,” Luedtke said.

With the focus on accident prevention growing in the commercial maritime sector, demand for safety rail systems is expected to grow as well. “Private and commercial boats, transportation, government or research vessels, and fishing or racing boats, all share common potential for someone falling overboard,” said Sean Cogan, industrial division sales manager for Harken.

Hadrian rails provide safety on the fore deck and around the wheelhouse on the pilot boat Culverwell, operated by the Portland Harbour Authority in Dorset, United Kingdom.

Courtesy Hadrian Safety Rails

In the past five years, the industry has become more aware of safety rail systems and their uses, Luedtke said. As the U.S. regulatory market begins to change, it will drive interest from naval architects and shipyards to incorporate these systems in newbuilds rather than retrofitting older ships, he said. Harken’s safety rail business comprises 70 percent newbuilds versus 30 percent retrofits.

Wells predicts the sector will grow as operators recognize that safety rail systems offer an economical solution to protect personnel in exposed working conditions.

“While the pilot boat use of car-and-track safety rail systems (is unique) for safe boarding of ships, the Hadrian system is relevant … where personnel are on the move around (any) vessel that does not have external fitted hand guardrails,” Wells said.

By Professional Mariner Staff