A Slippery Slope: Creating a Safety Culture on Board

1 April 2020 By Kate Lardy
Yacht washdown

Kate got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

M/Y Cutting Corners needed to pull off a crazy fast turnaround. After dropping guests in Bimini, the 50-meter yacht hightailed it to Miami where they pulled into port just hours before the owner’s party was expected. To add insult to injury, the Gulf Stream was acting up so they arrived nice and salty. The crew knew the only way they could be ready in time was to use plenty of dayworkers. 

A gaggle of them was waiting on the dock when the yacht arrived early afternoon and they were quickly sorted between interior and exterior and put to work. The exterior group started on the sun deck with instructions to wash down the boat from the top down. The bosun checked that they had all their kit and that they understood the basic idea since the experience level within the group varied greatly, but, as the bosun figured, it wasn’t rocket science.

While this is a hypothetical scenario, crew working at height without proper safety measures in place is fairly commonplace in the industry and does at times result in an accident. 

Moving forward to get to the bit of superstructure that overhung the pilothouse below, one dayworker climbed over the rail in front of the Jacuzzi and began to scrub. Then, for reasons likely attributed to pure inexperience, he stepped off the bit of nonskid onto the shiny Awlgrip, which was naturally super slippery in its soaped-up state. It also wasn’t flat, as the yacht’s designer had taken his cues from the curvy automotive world. As the dayworker leaned towards the edge with his brush, his feet lost their grip on the deck and he went sliding over the edge, landing with an audible crack of a bone on the deck below. 

While this is a hypothetical scenario, crew working at height without proper safety measures in place is fairly commonplace in the industry and does at times result in an accident. And when it does, the injury can be catastrophic. The UK’s Confidential Hazardous Incident Reporting Programme (CHIRP), which works in the maritime and aviation sectors, highlighted the matter in Issue 56 of its Maritime Feedback newsletter. While its report stemmed from one particular message it received about deck crew doing a washdown at considerable height above the waterline without safety equipment, CHIRP says it continually receives this type of report, primarily from the yachting sector.

The considerations are twofold, CHIRP’s Maritime Advisory Board points out: technical and human. The technical element stems from the yacht’s design, which makes aesthetics the top priority. “Too often, naval architects and designers, when designing a vessel give scant consideration to the practicalities of everyday operations such as washing down or routine access for inspection purposes,” states the report. “Rounded or sloping housings and decks may be aesthetically pleasing but — without suitable handrails, fishplates, or securing points for safety harness carabiners or similar devices — are potentially lethal for crewmembers carrying out their everyday jobs. Long-handled brushes will only go so far to compensate for thoughtless design.”

iStock/Moonstone Images

Capt. Michael French, who has 35 years’ experience in the industry, laments that more shipyards don’t take this into consideration. “It wouldn’t take much at the build (stage) to put in anchor points — to be able to screw in an eye bolt or something like that and attach a harness to it,” he says. “Aesthetically they wouldn’t be noticed.”

Regardless of how deck-crew-friendly a yacht’s styling is, the most important preventative measure is implementing a proper safety culture on board, i.e. the human element. “People can’t just think they are safe. It has to be managed and dictated to crew,” says Capt. French, who currently runs yachts in the 50- to 60-meter range. As he points out, yacht crew are typically young, confident people. “They think they’re good. They have balance, they’re fit, they’re strong. What could possibly go wrong?”

ISM has standardized procedures meant to mitigate the risks of doing something like working aloft to wash down, which includes filing a permit to work from a supervisor. This requires a check of the worker’s experience and training, supervision during the task, and use of the correct equipment. Yet crew are seen skipping these steps all the time. “To the young 25-year-old hungover deckhand, using the harness, attaching the eye bolt, completing a permit to work might [appear to] be a bunch of nonsense,” French says. “[Safety] is a discipline that has to be enforced.”

The bread-and-butter 50-meter market falls just out of range of ISM. Nevertheless, all well-run yachts, regardless of size, should have some sort of safety management system in place, says French.

It’s based on risk management, he says. “Say you’re going to work on the roof of the coach house, you’re going to be using soapy water — what are the risks?” French says. “Obviously slipping, so how do we mitigate that? Let’s use a harness and fall arrest device, let’s use boots with grip on their soles, let’s have a supervisor making sure that you’re up there safe and you’re not near the edges. Maybe let’s work on the over-board side and not on the dock side, because falling into the water is bad enough but falling on the dock is a death sentence.”

In summary, French says, “There are things that you can do in response to the obvious risks. The problem is people just get complacent about things they might do every week. Or they like the idea of doing it without a harness because it’s quick and easy. That’s the sort of thing you have to be careful of. You have to develop that culture.”

This column originally ran in the April 2020 issue of Dockwalk.


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