Poor safety routines factor in fatal accident in stairwell

On March 25 last year, a seafarer on a ship outside Landsort died after he walked down a stairwell next to a cargo hold filled with wood chips. According to the accident report, a number of deficiencies in the safety organization on board contributed to the event.

Although the risks of enclosed spaces have been known in shipping for decades, accidents continue to occur in which people are injured or killed after entering places with dangerous atmospheres on ships. The Swedish Accident Investigation Authority, SHK, recently published an investigation into a fatal accident that occurred on the Cyprus-flagged dry cargo ship, Nataly, off Landsort in March last year. The ship was loaded with wood chips and was at anchor waiting to enter the quay. Work had been started in an anchor box that required lighting, but this was broken and one of the crew was asked to fetch replacement lighting. He was discovered by a colleague a short while later, unconscious at the bottom of a stairwell and tragically he could not be saved. According to the autopsy results, the cause of death was probably suffocation as a result being in the stairwell. The risks of enclosed spaces were known by the crew and a safety exercise on enclosed spaces had been held. 

“Yet this accident still happened. We do not know why, but we believe that the person was looking for a work lamp in the stairwell, where certain equipment was kept,” says Jörgen Zachau, investigator at the Swedish Accident Investigation Authority. 

In the last audit, one inspector had approved the shipping company’s organization in 37 ships in one day.

But according to the accident investigation, poor safety routines may have contributed to the accident. Among other things, the door to the stairwell was not locked, which it should have been. 

“The shipping company claimed they wanted it unlocked in case of a fire in the hold, but that explanation does not really hold true because it is no less dangerous to go down there in a fire. If you want to be able to open the door, a key can be kept in a cupboard next to it,” says Jörgen Zachau.  

He believes the accident may be related to shortcomings in the shipping company’s safety organization, since information came out in the investigation that pointed in that direction. 

“In the last audit, one inspector had approved the shipping company’s organization in 37 ships in one day. It is hardly possible to make a serious check on an organization with so many ships in such a short time,” says Jörgen Zachau.  

In 2019, the Swedish Transport Agency published a list of fatal accidents in enclosed spaces in connection with loading and unloading on bulk carriers, carried out by the International Bulk Terminals Association (IBTA). The list shows that between 1999 and April 2018, 88 people died as a result of suffocation or carbon monoxide poisoning in 55 separate accidents. Of these, 76 died in cargo hold stairwells, 9 in cargo holds and 3 in adjacent spaces. 20 of the accidents were related to ships carrying coal. During the same period, there were six fatal accidents in enclosed spaces in Sweden, according to the Swedish Transport Agency.

Dangerous cargo 

Wood products, coal, fruit, fish and other organic substances can turn a normal cargo hold into a death trap in a short time through the formation of hazardous fumes and gases or the low oxygen content. Chain boxes and empty tanks can also be dangerous to enter since the rusting process can lead to a lack of oxygen.
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