A job painting the walls of a ship’s hold aboard an ocean-going dry bulker very nearly resulted in the deaths of two crewmen who, by luck only, were thrown to their knees instead of pitched to the floor, over 30 feet below, when their improvised work platform failed.
According to an official accident investigation report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), a six-member team had been tasked with cleaning and painting the holds of the log carrier/dry bulker Berge Daisetsu (IMO 9713179), at the port of Portland, Victoria.
At the time of the accident, on January 11, 2018, the ship had recently arrived in Australia from Long Beach, California, carrying a cargo of petroleum coke for discharge in Gladstone, Newcastle and Portland. Petcoke, which is a byproduct of crude oil refining, is nearly all carbon and it’s dusty to the touch.
Grain-carrying holds have got to be clean
Berge Daisetsu’s next cargo was to be grain, so the ship’s holds had to be surveyed, cleaned to standard and certified. Holds that have carried petcoke have to be cleaned with either a solvent or a caustic chemical, and water. Petcoke can also cause the paint of the ship’s hold to blister and peel. Contamination of grain cargoes with petcoke, chemicals and/or paint flakes is not acceptable.
Guidance from the ship’s manager, ship operator Berge Bulk, advised that the chemical should be left for 30 to 45 minutes before being washed off. But, in January, Australia is very hot and the chemicals dried on the surface of the ship’s hold. The chemicals stained the hold and presented a risk of unacceptable contamination of the grain that was to be loaded. The cargo surveyor ruled that the ship did not meet the required standard of cleanliness.
So the onboard crew decided to repaint the holds of the ship without discussing it with onshore management and in contravention to company policy that says painting of holds should only be done in dry dock.
No safe equipment
Unfortunately, the ship did not have the appropriate equipment to allow the safe painting of the holds, which were at least 12 meters (39.37 feet) deep.
So the crew took a portable gangway, tied some ropes to it, hooked up a ship’s crane and lowered the whole assembly, with two men, long-handled brushes, and 20-liter paint buckets onboard, into the hold to paint the walls.
The gangway had been supplied to the ship to grant safe access to and from the vessel. It was never intended to be used as a mobile platform for working at height.
“Because the improvised arrangement had limited stability, the ABs [able-bodied seafarers] stood one at each end of the staging to balance it. They were to work from these positions and limit their movement so as to not upset the staging and equipment on board,” the report reads.
There were also two further seafarers down on the floor of the hold. They were holding ropes attached the gangway/work platform to keep the whole apparatus from swinging around too much.
Unfortunately, it seems, no one had given any thought to the interaction of the crane equipment and the top of the ship’s hold. The platform was attached by ropes to a crane hook, which, in turn, was attached to the crane’s cables by a bulky piece of equipment known as a crane “falling block.” It’s also known as a traveling block. Meanwhile, each hold on the ship itself has a wide vertical metal structure called a “coaming” that surrounds the entry hatch to a hold. A coaming prevents water from sloshing off the deck into the hold. It also provides a frame for a hatch cover to fit onto.
The final part of the unforeseen problem was the crane itself. It did not have quite enough radius to allow the crane cable and hook to hang down in a straight line into the hatch. To allow the painting operation to go ahead, the crane operator bypassed a crane limit protection, which allowed the jib of the crane to drop a little further than it was allowed. This action gave a tiny bit more reach to the crane, just enough to get the crane hook and traveling block over the coaming and into the hold. The removal of the crane limit protection was done “without the knowledge of crew members other than the crane driver” the ATSB report reads.
On the afternoon of January 11, 2018, the crew had finished painting one of the holds and, after lunch, moved onto the next hold. By the middle of the afternoon, part way through the second hold, the crew decided they need to re-position the platform to carry on with their work. The crane operator was asked to move the platform. Unfortunately, the falling block caught on the lower edge of the hatch coaming but nobody noticed.
As the crane continued to move the platform “the block suddenly came free of the coaming sending an unexpected heavy shock into the staging, upsetting it and its load. Both ABs were knocked over on the staging and landed heavily on their knees and lower body. The paint buckets and rollers fell to the hold bottom,” according to the ATSB report.
The crew aboard the platform actually had fall arrest restraints fitted. However, as was later discovered by the ATSB, the fall-arrest equipment had been incorrectly attached and was utterly ineffective.
“Had either of the crewmen fallen from the platform the equipment would not have worked correctly, resulting in serious or fatal injuries,” the ATSB report said.
Even though they did not fall off the platform, both men were nonetheless seriously injured and had to be rushed by ambulance to the local hospital for treatment.
Work was not done safely
Having made its findings of fact, the ATSB concluded that, “the work was not conducted in accordance with company safety management procedures or industry best practice with regard to risk management and working aloft permit requirements… This accident illustrates the consequence of deviating from accepted safety management procedures and industry best practice. The use of machinery and equipment contrary to its intended purpose makes hazard identification difficult and exposes those directly involved to significantly increased risk.”
Since the accident, ship operator Berge Bulk has advised the ATSB that it has completed fleet-wide purchase of class-approved work platforms for work at heights. It has also started a program to have all cranes on its bulkers modified to allow for the safe lifting of personnel. Finally, it has also hired a safety consultant to assess fleet-wide “safety maturity” by measuring the level of safety practice and how well this is embedded in the behaviors and beliefs of employees.
About Berge Daisetsu and Berge Bulk
Berge Daisetsu is a geared log carrier and bulker, 2015-built by the Hakodate Dock Company of Japan. It has a volume of 21,530 gross tons and a capacity of 34,533 deadweight tonnes (38,000 U.S. tons). Gross tonnage is a measure of all of the internal space inside a ship. Deadweight is the measure of the carrying capacity of an ocean-going ship and it is expressed in metric tonnes.
The ship has a draught of 9.82 meters (32.2 feet), a length overall of just under 180 meters and a breadth of 30 meters. At the time of the accident, the Berge Daisetsu was flagged in the Isle of Man and was classed by DNV-GL.
Singapore-headquartered Berge Bulk owns and operates over 70 vessels, which have a total capacity of over 15 million deadweight. Vessels in the fleet range in size from handysize to capesize. Last year, the company transported over 75 million metric tonnes of cargo.