How to Reduce Risk Working on Board

4 June 2021 By John Pierce
Men hoisting sail

Chief Engineer John Pierce last worked aboard a 58-meter sailing yacht and has worked as both a second and chief engineer on motor and sailing yachts during his yachting career. He has completed several refits on 50-meter-plus vessels. He holds a Chief Engineer Unlimited CoC.  If you have any questions or suggestions, email him at

Chief Engineer John Pierce discusses performing risk assessments before undertaking a task on board to contribute to a safer workplace and prevent incidents.

There have been several fatalities in the yachting industry recently. These include a deckhand who fell off a mast on a sailing yacht, a captain who was crushed under a tender in the tender bay during bad weather, a deckhand who fell into the water while washing the side of the boat, and another deckhand who was killed on the bow of a yacht by another yacht during a high-speed collision.

These tragic fatalities could all have been avoided if the actions that led to them had been subjected to an adequate risk assessment. The same applies to the less-serious injuries and equipment damage that occurs on board. Unfortunately, it’s often the case in yachting that actions and jobs are not assessed with an adequate risk assessment due to time pressure, lack of training, fatigue, the influence of alcohol, a lack of awareness, or a complacent attitude.

An Informal Assessment

What is a risk assessment? The Code of Safe Working Practices for Merchant Seafarers, in Chapter 1, defines a risk as consisting of two parts — the first being the likelihood of a hazard occurring, and the second part being the consequences if the hazardous event did occur.

Let us take an example of a simple job such as mopping the deck in the crew mess after dinner. What is the likelihood of a crewmember rushing through and slipping on the wet deck? I would consider this quite likely, especially if the crew were eager to get off the boat.

Unfortunately, it is often the case in the yachting industry that actions and jobs are not assessed with an adequate risk assessment due to time pressure, lack of training, fatigue, the influence of alcohol, a lack of awareness, or a complacent attitude.

In the event that a crewmember did slip on the wet deck, what could the consequences be? Worst case, possibly a sprained back or a large cut on the head from hitting it on the corner of the crew mess table.

As you can see, a bit of thought shows that this routine task of mopping the crew mess deck can be a more dangerous activity than you might first expect. Obviously, the deck needs to be mopped — we can’t say, “It is too dangerous, best not do the job.” What we can do is reduce the risk.

So how would we do this? Firstly, to reduce the likelihood of someone slipping, perhaps wait until the crew have stopped rushing around before mopping the deck. Put up the usual “Wet and Slippery” plastic signs so people are aware of the hazard.

What about the second part of the risk assessment? If, in spite of our precautions, someone still dashes through and slips on the deck, is there any way we can reduce the consequences if this event happens? It might be a good idea to have sharp corners and edges in the crew mess padded with rounded pieces of softer material. This could possibly be a permanent fixture.

The above is an example of an informal risk assessment. As seafarers, we should apply the risk assessment method throughout our working day in order to keep ourselves and our crewmates safe.

Advanced Risk Assessment

Let us now take a look at a more advanced example of risk assessment involving a more complex job. Say we need to remove a bilge pump from a confined space in the engine room (by confined, I mean restricted movement, to avoid confusion with enclosed spaces with potential hazardous atmosphere) and then overhaul the pump and motor and then
put it back in place.

On an International Safety Management (ISM)-compliant yacht with a Safety Management System (SMS) in place, such a job would need a formal risk assessment, which would be recorded on paper and filed away as evidence that the yacht was complying with the requirements.

The first thing to do in order to carry out a risk assessment on a more complex job like this is break it down into steps, for example:

  1. Isolate pump motor electrically and lockout/tagout circuit breaker or isolator
  2. Isolate valves connecting bilge system to pump and lockout/tagout valves
  3. Disconnect wires from electric motor
  4. Remove bolts attaching pump and motor to the supporting base and the pipework
  5. Lift the motor and pump out
  6. Carry out overhaul of pump and motor
  7. Lower pump and motor back into place
  8. Fit all bolts and gaskets and tighten up
  9. Reconnect electrical wires
  10. Remove lockout/tagout on valves and breaker and test run pump

There are a lot of steps involved in this job, and injury can occur at every step; therefore, a risk assessment has to be carried out for each step. Let’s examine Step 5: “Lift the motor and pump out” and see what a risk assessment might look like.

What could happen when lifting a pump and motor? If it was very heavy, one could experience a manual handling injury such as a serious back sprain, especially if the workspace is confined and it is difficult to get into a good lifting position. In this case, it would be better to carry out the lift from a strong point in the deck head using slings, shackles, and a chain hoist. Each of these objects has to be checked that they are rated for the weight of the pump and motor, or else they could be dropped during the lift, causing serious personal injury or expensive equipment damage.


When carrying out a risk assessment, how do we decide if the risk is low enough to go ahead? This is where the risk matrix is a useful tool. The risk-level matrix provided in the Code of Safe Working Practices for Merchant Seafarers, Chapter 1, 4.5, is shown above.

In the case of lifting the pump and motor, I would say that the likelihood of harm (see the first column) is “very likely” if we are to lift it out by manual handling. The severity of harm (see top row) is probably “moderate harm,” such as a nasty back sprain. This puts us in a red box labeled “very high risk” and the job step has to be modified in order to reduce the risk to a tolerable or acceptable level (low risk or very low risk).

When carrying out a risk assessment, how do we decide if the risk is low enough to go ahead?

In this case, we would decide to do the lift with properly rated lifting gear. The likelihood of harm is now reduced to “very unlikely” and the severity of harm to “slight harm.” This puts us in a green box labeled “very low risk” and the job may proceed.

The purpose of this article is to raise the awareness of yacht crew about the importance of risk assessment, formal and informal, in their daily tasks and hopefully it will help to reduce the incidence of hazardous events on board. For a more comprehensive understanding of risk assessment and the duty of employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers, refer to the Code of Safe Working Practices for Merchant Seafarers, which is published by the MCA and must be carried on all UK-registered commercial yachts. Vessels registered with other flag states will have their own versions of risk assessment codes in order to comply with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) requirements for Formal Safety Assessment (FSA). They will follow the same basic principles of assessing risk based on two parts, the likelihood of a hazard occurring and the consequences if the hazardous event did occur.

This article originally ran in the May 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


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