TSAC offers 100-plus tips for preventing falls overboard, saving lives

The Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) has issued a report containing more than 100 best practices to prevent falls overboard from boats and barges.

TSAC reviewed 55 fall-overboard fatalities between 2000 and 2010. The panel determined there is no “silver bullet” for prevention and that the safety culture of the industry must be changed.

The document, finished in March 2013, is being shared throughout the industry. The recommendations likely won’t find their way into Coast Guard regulations but will be communicated via the Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Homeport website and industry groups.

Based on Coast Guard incident reports, the committee identified 29 activities or hazards that could lead to falls overboard. It set out a list of best practices to avoid fatal incidents, including lists of “Dos” and “Don’ts.” The recommendations range from establishing a safety culture to ongoing training to outfitting all personnel on deck with radios.

“We found there is no silver bullet, no one thing that will prevent man-overboards,” said Steve J. Huttman, chairman of TSAC’s committee on falls overboard and vice president of marine operations for G & H Towing Co. “We have to change the safety culture in the industry.”

The American Waterways Operators (AWO) examined the issue back in 1995, and tackled it again in 2012 as part of the Quality Action Team with the Coast Guard, said Brian Vahey, government affairs manager for the AWO. The conclusions each time have been consistent.

“TSAC said the best way to address falls-overboard fatalities is through foundation of a strong safety culture, one that is predicated on a lot of learning and a lot of accountability,” Vahey said. “AWO is in full agreement with TSAC on these recommendations.”

Huttman said that while there were a wide range of reasons for falls-overboard incidents, there were some common threads: Most occurred on inland waterways, with deck hands falling off barges rather than towing vessels, and most involved employees with less than a year of experience on the water.

Wearing a personal flotation device dramatically improved the chances of surviving a fall overboard, but Huttman said the goal was to prevent the fall in the first place.

The recommended best practices range from cleaning decks and other housekeeping steps to implementing a buddy system for working on deck. But most improvements will come from cultural changes.

“Companies and mariners should develop a safety culture and train new hires in the beginning on safety policies and procedures,” Huttman said. “And we have to train existing personnel in the culture of learning and accountability.”

The Coast Guard will help publicize the best practices, but it’s not likely that most of them will become regulations.

“These are things that all companies can implement into their training programs and safety culture rather than be hit with prescriptive regulations in the future,” said Cmdr. Rob Hall, the Coast Guard representative to TSAC.

TSAC considers the best practices to be a “living document” and may revisit the issue in three years, Huttman said.
The best practices recommend that operators track and investigate “near miss” incidents and conduct root-cause analysis. A near miss is a fall overboard that does not result in a fatality. Industry experts think actually implementing that step may be difficult.

“The reality of the situation of recording a near miss and recognizing a non-incident, whether it’s by virtue of simple blind luck or something else, I think there may be some resistance to this idea,” Vahey said. “But it all comes back to developing a safety culture.”

TSAC’s best practices range from wearing the right type of PFD for the situation to painting all perimeter and tripping hazards on a vessel in a contrasting color for visibility. Housekeeping recommendations include keeping decks clear of tripping hazards and having de-icing procedures. Key work practices include using the buddy system for people working on deck.

“We’re big on the buddy system, so even if there’s only one person on deck, the master in the wheelhouse needs to keep an eye on the person out there,” Huttman said. Everyone on deck at night should have a radio and a flashlight, he said.

More safety “Dos”: Carry loads outboard when walking along edges of boats and barges; always keep a hand free when walking; keep guard chains up at all times and immediately re-hook them when a task is complete; shuffle your feet when handling a line on deck.

Safety “Don’ts”: Do not walk backward on the vessel or tow; don’t walk on the outside of the tow while underway; avoid overextending your body while performing a task; don’t abuse alcohol or other substances while working.

By Professional Mariner Staff