Tug mooring facilities need to be improved to prevent seafarer accidents and encourage safer operations
Safe access for workboats in terminals and ports is a key issue tug owners and harbour authorities are working to improve.
There is an ongoing problem with seafarers being injured or killed falling off workboats due to poor access to vessels from quaysides.
In the UK, leading port and tug operators are tackling key safety issues. They met to highlight risks at a seminar, organised by the British Ports Association and British Tugowners Association, during London International Shipping Week in September 2019, which Tug Technology & Business attended.
At that seminar, UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) chief inspector Andrew Moll explained why it is important to invest in better workboat mooring in ports. He said two seafarers have died in UK ports in separate incidents.
One died from exposure to near-freezing waters at Essar’s oil terminal in Tranmere, near Liverpool, after falling overboard from a tug while working with mooring lines. And another seafarer lost his life after being crushed between a dredger and quayside in Rosyth, Scotland during mooring operations.
Mr Moll recommended terminal operators consider using linesmen to moor tugs as well as assisted ships and review their provision for mooring workboats, including tugs.
Workboat Association chief executive Kerrie Forster said these accidents demonstrate the need for safer access to vessels in ports, highlighting that good practice is having “a well-designed pontoon” specifically for workboats.
“Bad practice is having several vessels tied together, which increases the potential for injury from falling between vessels and going overboard,” Mr Forster said.
Of the existing methods for providing access to workboats from quaysides in harbours, gangways are widely regarded to be the best solution, followed by floating pontoons and permanent and temporary ladders.
However, most docking facilities are not designed with workboats or tidal fluctuations in mind, rather they are designed for larger commercial ships docking during mid- to high tides.
During a panel discussion at LISW, UK port authorities for London and Harwich discussed safety challenges with tug owners Williams Shipping and Svitzer.
Williams Shipping compliance manager Shaun Mansbridge said some ports have dedicated workboat moorings, but they may already be employed. He gave an example of when a tug and barge arrived at a UK west coast port in 2018.
The tug manoeuvred the barge alongside the quay and was instructed to moor on the safe-access pontoon. “But, there were two small vessels on the pontoon,” said Mr Mansbridge. “The crew would have to move these off to get the workboat there. Instead they moored the tug alongside the barge and used that to access the quay.”
The crew had to clamber up the quayside from the barge. Seven hours later they had to climb down. “One lost his footing and the master caught the mate, breaking a wrist in the process,” said Mr Mansbridge.
“Another challenge is the ‘code of silence’ as it took them three days to tell us about the broken wrist.”
Mr Mansbridge said this demonstrates the industry needs “more accurate reporting, open discussion, root-cause analysis, preventative actions and no closing of ranks” to prevent these accidents reoccurring.
He also advocates pre-access consultation between ports and workboat owners. “There are berths for large ships with gangways, but for vessels less than 24-m, there may be a step ladder for access and the main deck could be 5 m below the quay – making access a nightmare.”
Svitzer Europe head of marine standards Scott Baker said the wide quality range of moorings is a safety issue. “Many terminals are not designed for tugs,” he said. “There are good mooring solutions and sub-optimal access in ports. But there are a lot of legacy issues.”
When tugs are in home ports there are dedicated moorings, such as Svitzer’s base near Gravesend, Kent. But when tugs need to transit between ports, there are issues.
“An engineered solution would be good, but, if there is none, some moorings will be poor,” said Capt Baker. “We can do a lot more. There are a few places with a bespoke setup, but where there is not we need investment. There are some ports where we cannot find space.”
Capt Baker said tug moorings should be part of the procedures. “Few ports have towage plans,” he said.
Port of London Authority (PLA) chief harbour master Bob Baker said a key issue is the number and types of terminals for different ship types in large ports.
“Some have good facilities and towing operations, but some may not have resources,” said Mr Baker. “Large ports have teams and facilities but smaller ports may have just one person doing most of the work.”
A legacy of terminal construction along the Thames means PLA oversees a variety of small to large facilities. “There are many jetties built for smaller vessels. But larger ships are coming to the port’s berths and terminals and most facilities are not built for today’s operations,” said Mr Baker.
UK Harbour Masters’ Association executive officer Martin Willis said investing in personnel access to small vessels is challenging for ports built more than 100 years’ ago.
“There is a lot of short-term work for multiple vessels that need mooring, but limited resources to provide temporary arrangements,” he said. “There are major projects coming, for offshore wind, then we are going to fill harbours quickly with modern vessels in 18th or 19th-century facilities.”
Harwich Haven Authority chief executive Neil Glendinning said this is one of a range of safety issues, including procedure compliance, tugboat operators face.
“Vessels have safety systems and procedures, but people are not following them,” he said. His authority reviews towage vessels, crew and procedures.
“We look at working practices, training and crew competence. Then all vessel and terminal operators will talk together,” said Mr Glendinning. “Ports need to be more proactive to ask questions about vessel owners’ safety and procedures.”
Man overboard drills needed
UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch chief inspector Andrew Moll urged tug owners to run risk assessments and ensure they are drilled for emergencies.
“Safety management systems are too generic,” he said. “Operators should find a local safety solution and use a hierarchy of risk control,” said Mr Moll. He explained this should begin with ensuring deck crew wear safety equipment and are drilled in emergency situations.
“Man overboard is a perennial problem and leads to high fatalities,” said Mr Moll. “For deck work they should wear life jackets as this prevents drowning on first emersion and in the UK water it is always cold. This is incapacitating as within 10 minutes the person overboard has no control, no grip and is unable to swim.”
Mr Moll thinks seafarers need practice drills in man overboard recovery. “A tug crew of three will practice with dummies, but what if there are only two people on board as one of them is in the water? Is there training for this?” he asked.