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Today is Thursday, February 21, 2019

Watchkeeper: Saving lives in lifeboats

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The continuing loss of life and serious injuries in accidents involving lifeboats remains a scandal, not least because possible solutions are available, the situation is well understood and only the will to change things internationally seems to be lacking. Hopefully and eventually, safe on-load release hooks and their mechanisms will be tested to ensure that they are safe, and those that fail to meet new mandatory criteria will be done away with. 

But meanwhile lives are still at risk and BIMCO, along with a group of other co-sponsoring bodies all with a practical knowledge and a “strong competence in operational aspects of ships’ lifeboats”, has submitted proposals to the IMO which would require fall preventer devices to be made mandatory with immediate effect. This, it is acknowledged, is an interim measure until potentially hazardous equipment can be replaced, but is clearly justified because of the continuing accidents. 

Many operators have installed Fall Prevention Devices (FPDs) as a safety device, but a survey conducted by BIMCO has demonstrated that many others do not, perhaps employing the strategy of prohibiting crew from entering lifeboats without safeguards in place, lowering the boat without crew in it and boarding by rope ladder. This is not without its own risks, is slow, and would be impractical in an emergency. It also de-skills the crew as the seafarers do not get the required experience which is the whole point of lifeboat drills. 

FPDs effectively prevent the hook detaching prematurely from a suspended lifeboat and will take the form of wire strops or slings or perhaps a lock that prevents the mechanism from operating. They are in most cases not difficult to install, but can provide a degree of insurance against failure of the on-load mechanism, which may not meet the safest specification. It is a measure that can be quickly implemented and could do a great deal to restore the confidence of seafarers in their escape equipment, badly shaken by so many accidents. 

This month’s Design and Equipment Sub-Committee meeting at the IMO will provide the opportunity for this measure to be taken, and hopefully implemented immediately, pending the additional proposed amendments to the more permanent “Guidelines for Evaluation and replacement of lifeboat on load release mechanisms” to Chapter IV of the LSA Code. These of course will provide the means whereby some 70 different types of boat release mechanisms can be properly evaluated and, where necessary, replaced. 

It is regrettable that this has taken so long, and so many lives and injuries which reflect badly upon both regulators and industry. On load release mechanisms were brought in with the best of intentions, as were the covered boats, but very often as equipment brought in by shipbuilders who lacked the experience to determine their safety and practicability, they have proved dangerous or inadequate in practice. Often mechanisms have been over-complicated and difficult to safely employ, they have been sometimes insufficiently robust, with insufficient attention given to their exposed position and the onset of corrosion, while they have often been difficult or impossible for crews to maintain to an adequate standard. 

The Sub-Committee on Design and Equipment will hopefully, at its 55th session this month, pay close attention to this practical proposal from BIMCO and its co-sponsors. Lives, after all, depend upon it. 

Articles written by the Watchkeeper and other outside contributors do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of BIMCO.

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