Impending mandatory changes in lifeboat hook designs promise to address recurring accidents that have resulted in injuries and deaths.
All hook design manufacturers must carry out a design review, followed by physical testing under load, witnessed by a third party such as a classification society. If a hook system fails at any point during the evaluation process, it will be deemed non-compliant. Any non-compliant hooks that have already been installed on vessels will have to be replaced by July 1, 2019. The evaluations will aim to identify fine tolerances or component deterioration that could jeopardize the safe operation of a hook release and retrieval system.
The new regulations, coming into effect Jan. 1, 2013, relate to changes in Chapter III of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention. “These amendments will require the assessment and possible replacement of a large number of lifeboat release hooks,” said Natasha Brown, a spokeswoman for the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
In the Alexander L. Kielland oil rig disaster in the North Sea in 1980, only one lifeboat was successfully launched and 123 people died. Following that accident, beginning in 1986, all new lifeboats were required to be fitted with on-load, instead of off-load gear. But some of the new hook designs eventually proved dangerous, since they can unintentionally release for a wide variety of reasons. Those reasons include lack of proper maintenance leading to wear of components; the effects of corrosion or broken or maladjusted operating cables; and unfamiliarity with the hooks, leading to operator errors.
Off-load hooks are designed to release a lifeboat from the falls after it has been lowered and is afloat. On-load hooks have the capability to release a lifeboat from its lowering tackle with the boat suspended above the water and the load still on the falls. The accidental opening of one or both on-load hooks can result in a lifeboat becoming vertically suspended or dropping into the water as occurred in a January 2004 incident in Portland, Maine. In that accident one worker died and two were seriously injured after a lifeboat they were in plummeted 60 feet from the oil rig Pride Rio de Janeiro.
Although there are no worldwide statistics on lifeboat accidents, a 2001 study by the U.K.-based Marine Accident Investigation Branch, showed that 12 seafarers died and 87 were injured aboard U.K. flag ships or in U.K. waters during a 10-year period starting in 1989.
The majority of accidents occurred during training drills and maintenance operations.
Some hook manufacturers have anticipated the need for change. U.K.-based Survival Craft Inspectorate, which installs and maintains lifeboats and other safety equipment on ships, developed in 2001 a stainless steel hook called Safelaunch that meets all the new requirements.
“With its safety pin inserted, the system cannot encounter an unintentional release. It is physically impossible,” said Paul Watkins, sales and project manager.
Schat-Harding, a life-saving equipment manufacturer headquartered in Norway and makers of the approved SeaCure LHR (lifeboat hook roller), has developed an optional training lock as a secondary safety control measure for drills. “It’s not in the IMO criteria yet, but it’s what the industry is looking for,” said David Bradley, the company’s vice president of operations.
Specialized training can also help. “With the new hooks, the hope is we can work with crews to increase their confidence and feel better that this equipment will actually work, and encourage them to participate more fully in lifeboat drills,” said Capt. Pat Boyle, director of training and certification for Q3 Marine Training Solutions in Anacortes, Wash.
After the design review and testing has been completed, hook manufacturers must file a report by July 1, 2013, confirming their systems meet the new standards. The reports must be submitted to their relevant national administrations as required by the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee.
If the hook remains stable and able to suspend its safe working load weight in a variety of conditions, it will be deemed compliant. Even the amount of force that is required on the operating lever of the release gear is measured to ensure it is neither too little nor too much to operate safely.
Any non-compliant hook release systems have to be replaced on ships by their next dry dock period after July 1, 2014, and before July 1, 2019. A growing list of approved hooks is available on the IMO’s Global Integrated Shipping Information System website.
The changes come after over a decade of lengthy industry discussions on lifeboat safety. Paul Drouin, owner of SafeShip, a former Canadian Coast Guard master and marine accident investigator for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said, “These are all steps in the right direction, but unfortunately, too little too late. On the other hand, it is all too easy to blame IMO and the regulations. Any self-respecting operator who values their crew would ensure the proper tests and inspections are undertaken and that adequate training, maintenance and manuals in the language spoken on board were made available. In my opinion, this initiative will not dramatically improve safety, but any progress is better than none. One life saved is worth the effort.”
“IMO issues regulations,” said Brown. “It is up to individual flag states to implement them and decide how to encourage implementation.”