School of hard knocks delivers painful lessons in fall prevention

Anyone who has worked on a commercial vessel will tell you how easy it can be to slip and fall while on board. I recall one winter working on a 400-foot dredge off of Panama on the Pacific side, filling in for a young mate during the holidays so that he could be home with his family. Having joined the ship the night before and being the only one using the junior officers’ shared head that morning, I decided to enjoy a shave and a long hot shower before my watch at noon. Drying off and putting on my bathrobe, I used both hands to carry my toilet articles, towel and shaving kit. Just three steps out of the shower, the ship took a sharp turn to port and I slipped. In a move reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s flying tumbles after Lucy pulls the football away, I landed hard on my back, my head bouncing forcefully on the painted steel deck.

Losing consciousness for who knows how long, I awoke dazed and shaken. Tentatively, I made my way unsteadily to my room. Sitting on my bed, I felt what seemed like a tennis ball-sized lump on the back of my head, but luckily there was no blood or cerebrospinal fluid. Trying to collect my wits after gaining enough composure to take some aspirin and slather on a copious amount of Arnica montana gel that I had in my room, the swelling started to go down and I began to feel better. When it came time to stand watch I still felt drained and had a dull headache, but the captain checked me out and gave the OK as long as I took it easy. My head remained sore and tender for over a week, a reminder of the hard fall I took on my first full day on board.

I am certain that nothing would have happened that morning had I followed one of the cardinal rules for avoiding slips and falls on board: “Keep one hand for yourself and one hand for the ship.” Since the days of sailing vessels, this has been a reminder for mariners to hold onto something secure with one hand at all times when conditions make slipping and falling a possibility. Looking back on my painful fall, I should not have had both hands carrying something when I got out of the shower, and I was lucky not to have cracked my head open. Other mariners I’ve known have not been as fortunate, like the second mate I worked with on a tanker who slipped while doing maintenance up in the forepeak. Failing to keep one hand for himself and one for the ship, he fell hard on the steel deck, shattering both kneecaps and breaking his wrists — ending his career as a mariner and disabling him for life.

For avoiding slips and falls on board, proper footwear is also essential — something I learned from a chief cook. Mike lived in Seattle and we worked together on a tanker running from Long Beach, Calif., to Valdez, Alaska. One evening, I came down for a snack before my 8-to-12 watch as Mike finished up cleaning the stove and cooking area after supper. Looking like he needed a hand carrying out a number of trash bags, I went back to the galley to help him and lost my footing, slipping on the deck he had just swabbed and coming down hard on my left knee.

After seeing that I wasn’t seriously hurt, Mike proceeded to give me a friendly lesson on footwear as I rubbed my knee. “Working around a hot stove and deep fryer all day, I only wear slip-resistant shoes,” he said. Pointing to the underside of one of his shoes, he continued, “Your boots have the wrong tread. Get some with slip-resistant soles like these.” I took Mike’s advice. After getting home on vacation a few weeks later, my wife and I made a trip into Seattle and found a place on Capitol Hill where I ordered two pairs of slip-resistant, steel-toed, oil-resistant, high-cut leather work boots for about $300 each. I have never worked without those boots since, although both pairs have been resoled several times.

I also have seen firsthand a technique that has been employed effectively by top-notch companies on their commercial vessels to help prevent slips and falls: using anti-skid additives to improve traction on painted surfaces. On those ships, everything from a type of sandy grit to ground walnut shells were mixed into the paint used to cover outside decks and walkways — with good success. In addition, interior passageways were lined with gritty non-slip adhesives at the entrances/exits to help prevent wet shoes and boots from slipping on the deck when entering the house.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, nearly 50 percent of reported maritime injuries are caused by slips and falls. Preventing these accidents on commercial vessels is, in my opinion, a shared responsibility. On one hand, officers and crewmembers must take precautions and do all they can to personally protect themselves. It is also incumbent upon vessel operators and shipping companies to make certain that decks and walkways on their vessels are as safe as they can make them, in accordance with maritime laws such as the Jones Act (Merchant Marine Act of 1920) and the International Safety Management (ISM) Code. Obviously, more needs to be done. Before yet another mariner is hurt, another career is ended or another lawsuit is filed against a shipping company, maritime authorities need to take the necessary action to strengthen and improve the regulations.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff