A ‘routine’ task with a range of risks

Entering enclosed spaces might be just part of the job, but never forget the hazards such a task presents

By Phil Belcher

As a first trip cadet, one incident is imprinted upon my memory when I badly messed up during a tank cleaning operation on a product tanker, sending two seafarers down an unventilated tank. Thankfully they were unharmed, but a combination of a lack of situational awareness, lack of experience and overconfidence had led me to miss several critical steps. Since then, enclosed space entry has always been of the utmost importance to me.

The entering of enclosed spaces on a ship is an essential activity and while it should be limited, it cannot be avoided. Unfortunately, it is also an inherently hazardous operation that is often regarded as a ‘routine’ activity – and so the personal hazards are frequently ignored. When you read enclosed space accident reports you often find yourself asking why on earth the seafarer took the action reported. Lack of recognition of the risks, belief that they can handle the hazards and the desire to just ‘get the job done’ are all seen in these reports. Accounts of those rushing to the aid of someone who has collapsed and then becoming overcome themselves, are particularly depressing.

Entering an enclosed space must always be regarded as being one of the most hazardous activities that can be carried out on board a ship.
A great deal of work has been undertaken by the IMO and all seafarers should be familiar with the enclosed entry guidelines in A27/1050 and the compulsory drills mandated by SOLAS Chapter III Regulation 19.

While those instruments have had a positive effect, deaths continue to be reported so an even greater focus in this area is needed. INTERTANKO and OCIMF have published the Behavioural Competence Assessment and Verification guidance, covering soft skills. This guidance was the culmination of several years of collaborative work between our organisations and focuses on how seafarers undertake their work rather than on their technical knowledge.

Rounded skills base

Soft skills are vital as they are the key to ensuring that the technical skills are properly applied. In any hazardous operation, soft skills such as leadership, collaboration, communication and situational awareness are essential. Inherent in these skills are both the ability for the junior person to raise questions and, if needed, stop the job – and for the senior person to accept such an intervention and fully investigate the issue if the job is stopped. Having the moral courage to raise an issue and also the moral courage to step back and consider whether a mistake was made are vital soft skills.

It is best practice that the person in charge of an entry has the right documentation signed off by the Master and this should validate why the work is going ahead, who is involved and when the work should end. A tool box talk should then be arranged between all involved so that everyone understands the situation and their role. If the plan is clearly understood by all parties, any deviations can be challenged in a safe manner and the work completed without incident. The rescue procedures should also be reiterated to prevent anyone from running in, should there be an incident involving someone who has collapsed.

Enclosed spaces will always need to be entered on a ship. Associations such as INTERTANKO, working with other organisations like OCIMF and InterManager, must aim to reduce the burden of enclosed space entry. Seafarers will always be both the first and last line of defence, we just need to make sure they can work in a safe environment and give them all the necessary tools to deal with any unforeseen incident safely.

Phil Belcher is marine director at INTERTANKO, www.intertanko.com.