‘Serious’ design issues leave seafarers fearful of using lifesaving equipment

The on-load fall release systems for gravity-launched lifeboats have been heavily criticised by crew. Credit: National Maritime College of Ireland

In the most comprehensive report of its kind, British seafarers have criticised design aspects of the lifesaving appliances (LSA) on board their ships, with freefall lifeboats coming under heaviest fire. Distrust of the equipment has meant crew are reluctant to carry out training drills or use LSA in emergencies.

The report, prepared by the Seafarers International Research Centre, based at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, was carried out over a four-year period ending in 2016 and involved interviewing more than 360 seafarers as well as questionnaires completed by 2,500 serving officers. The majority of concerns expressed by seafarers related to design issues. These included concerns over the adequacy of the shock absorption and restraint systems of freefall lifeboats, as well as the restricted space in them.

The on-load fall release systems for conventional gravity-launched lifeboats was also heavily criticised by crew following a number of high-profile accidents relating to these systems. In 2017, 5 people were killed and 10 were seriously injured in incidents with lifeboats, according to a study by an InterManager office bearer, with hook release problems cited as the most probable cause.

The report said the design issues had had an impact on attitudes to equipment and produced “considerable fear in the course of drills and fearfulness” of using the equipment during emergencies. “Loss of faith in the design of the equipment had a knock-on effect in terms of training and drills.”

Most seafarers in the report said their only experience of using liferafts was during training exercises, but the had strong criticisms of the inadequate arrangements for unassisted boarding of liferafts from the water. This was made more difficult by poorly designed immersion suits and the lack of dexterity they created. The seafarers added that training drills, particularly when shore-based, were “inadequate”, stating there was often little time to carry them out. However, perhaps the most worrying aspect of the survey was that some captains said they avoided LSA drills, fearing for the safety of their crews.

Prof Helen Sampson, the lead in developing the report, told Fairplay sister title Safety at Sea, “Our research points to some serious shortcomings in the design of lifesaving appliances. In the future we hope that more attention will be paid by regulators and manufacturers to the physical and mental attributes of the humans who are likely to use them.”

The report recommends a number of changes: making fall prevention devices mandatory (they are currently recommended) and improved training in their use; increased space inside freefall lifeboats, particularly between rows of seats and space for the storage of immersion suits and lifejackets; and improved design to reduce the risk of spinal injuries. The report also calls for the improved design of liferafts and immersion suits.

The report also looked at the design and operation of bridge electronic equipment and called for more technical assistance from ashore as well as updating and improving design, particularly relating to GMDSS equipment.

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