OSHA fines tug company following fatal fall of master using dock ladder to board vessel

A tugboat company has paid a $3,780 penalty to federal regulators as a result of a June 2011 ladder accident that killed one of its captains at an Alaska dock.

Campbell Maritime Inc., based in Seattle, failed to provide its employees with a safe means to travel between their vessel and a pier, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said.

While the tugboat Aries was moored at the Alaska Railroad Corp. freight dock in Seward, Alaska, the tug's master was preparing to climb down the pier's fixed ladder when he fell 20 feet onto the tug and into the water. The master, Michael Church, 66, of Bellevue, Wash., was pronounced dead of blunt force injuries to his head and torso.

OSHA ruled that the dock's ladder was an emergency ladder intended only to assist a person who falls off the dock, according to an investigative report obtained by Professional Mariner through the Freedom of Information Act.

The agency said Campbell Maritime should have provided the crew with "proper and safe access" using a gangway or other equipment.

"The emergency ladders which are supplied at docks, wharves, piers, etc., are solely intended for emergency conditions for someone to get out of the water and up to the top of the structure," OSHA wrote. "They were never intended for regular access to/from a vessel. Other means used by the industry include the use of a marine taxi service for transporting employees or providing guarded egress if egress must be made across a barge."

Before publishing those findings, OSHA said it contacted four other maritime companies to inquire about their policies for ladder use.

"It is unacceptable to carry anything while climbing a ladder," one company wrote. "Maintain three points of contact at all times. Use a skiff or a harbor tug to transfer if climb is unsafe. If unsafe don't try it."

Witnesses reported that Church was carrying a 2-foot-square cardboard box. It contained a roll of filter media for the engine's air cleaner and weighed only a few pounds.

Aries was operated by C&K Marine, an Anchorage-based company half-owned by Seattle-based Campbell Maritime. OSHA ruled that Campbell employed Church. The company's owner, Capt. Brian Campbell, declined comment on the OSHA report.

The other partner, Kevin Kennedy of Anchorage, said their vessels do not regularly call at Seward. Aries moored there in June only because it needed a gearbox repair.

OSHA told Kennedy that another acceptable means of egress would have been a vessel-based ladder that reached three feet above the top of the quay. He said it's up to the on-site captain to decide the safest way on and off the vessel.

"There was a ladder on the boat, and they could have used it, but they chose to use the ladder that was attached to the pier," which Kennedy said was "vastly safer."

Even while investigators were present, other Aries crewmembers were using the same dock ladder. A sign next to the ladder says, "WARNING, SAFETY LADDER, USE AT YOUR OWN RISK."

"Employees were climbing over the side of the vessel, standing on the guardrail and stretching out to reach the emergency ladder connected to the pilings under the pier," OSHA wrote. "One feasible method of abatement might include berthing the vessel so that employees had safe access, such as a gangway or guarded-planked access to and from the vessel to the dock or pier."

Campbell Maritime's lawyers submitted a document arguing that their vessel complied with regulations. "The Aries had a straight ladder on board," the company response said. "The straight ladder on the tug, however, was not used because the dock had a permanently affixed straight ladder which was safer than using the ladder from the tug."

In the June 10 accident, Church plunged onto the boat's starboard gunwale and then fell into the water. His crew pulled their captain out of the water immediately, but he could not be revived. OSHA said Church was not wearing a floatation device.

Kennedy said it's not clear that OSHA's alternatives would have been safer because of the height of the dock, which is used by ships and large barges, and the considerable tide range at Seward. The 1,200-hp, 98-gross-ton Aries is 69 feet long.

"When you have a small boat like this, a gangway is impossible. When you have a minus-2 tide, you can't send a gangway down 15 feet," Kennedy said.

He said he has prepared a booklet for his crews explaining OSHA's regulations.

By Professional Mariner Staff