U.S. laker fleet experiences second fatal conveyor accident in a year

A crewman on a laker was killed when a conveyor belt started up while he was repairing a hydraulic leak, prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to warn the industry that better safety practices are necessary.

The accident happened Nov. 12, 2011, aboard St. Marys Challenger, the oldest vessel in the U.S. and Canadian laker fleets, while the 551-foot self-unloading cement carrier was docked at Milwaukee, Wis. Ronald Lee Hackensmith, 61, was killed after the conveyor belt amputated his arm at the shoulder, according to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner.

Hackensmith, a conveyorman, was working alone, three decks below the main deck of the 106-year-old boat. While he was servicing the hydraulic leak, he asked for the 782-foot-long conveyor belt to be shut down. Without a request to start the belt back up again, it did restart. His arm was caught in it, the medical examiner's report said. A dishwasher heard the screaming from two decks up.

The accident was reported at 2114. Hackensmith was pronounced dead three hours later. After an autopsy, cause of death was declared to be blunt force injury to the left upper extremity.

The fatality was the second involving conveyor belts aboard Great Lakes vessels in a little over a year. Both accidents appear to have been the result of poor communication while the belts were stopped and restarted, according to a Coast Guard safety alert issued one month after the St. Marys Challenger casualty.

"It is reported that no safety procedure existed pertaining to work on or around the conveyor system and that the deceased did not have radio or other device to call for help," the alert said of the recent incident.

Police found remnants of a rag in a conveyor belt wheel in the area where Hackensmith was repairing the hydraulic oil leak. A metal bolt, just above the wheel, was detached. Dark-colored grease was noted in the area and on the back of the victim's left shoulder. He was left-handed.

"The ship's log records the decedent's request for shutting down the engine and restarting it," the medical examiner's report said. "There was a recording for the first cycle of shutting down and restarting. … A second request was made by the decedent to shut the engine down. The request to restart the engine was not documented."

The conveyor motor was, however, running when the accident happened.

The U.S.-flagged St. Marys Challenger was built in 1906 and is the oldest laker still commercially operating. Formerly called Southdown Challenger, its name was changed in 2005 when it was acquired by St. Marys Cement Group of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The company didn't respond to a request for comment. St Marys' parent company, Votorantim Cimentos of Brazil, didn't reply to an e-mail request for comment.

The other recent Great Lakes conveyor-belt fatality was in August 2010 aboard the 1,000-foot ore carrier Stewart J. Cort in Lake Superior (PM #142). A 61-year-old deck hand was crushed in a belt while he and another crewman were servicing a bilge pipe next to the conveyor.

"Because the clearance between the belt and piping was small, the crew had to step on a large pulley that was part of the system," the Coast Guard safety alert said of the 2010 incident. "Simultaneously, a shore-side contractor was working on the conveyor system in another part of the vessel."

The Cort crew used differing alarms to signify that the belt was restarting or all was clear. The deck hand mistakenly thought he heard an all-clear alarm and resumed work.

"His coworker emphatically told him to get off the belt several times" and that the alarm he heard "was not the conveyor belt alarm, but rather a watertight door alarm that has a similar sound," the alert said. He didn't stop work and was lethally entangled.

The Coast Guard alert urges vessel operators and class societies — "regardless of how it's been done before" — to develop operation and repair procedures that focus on safety. Crewmembers working in remote areas should have a radio. Lock-out, tag-out systems must involve everyone working on the system, and verbal "all-clear" announcements should be required before remote startup.

Companies should ensure that "work actually upon or near live machinery is prohibited while other work is being performed on the same machinery," the alert states.

The Coast Guard urges all crewmembers to "review frequently and ensure that safe work practices and procedures are always followed. If safe work procedures and safe working practices are not available, request that they be developed. Study them, raise questions, don't embrace methods or procedures that present risk, even if it has always been done like that before. Listen to your shipmates when warnings of potential dangers are given."

By Professional Mariner Staff