Some managers have an “open-door” office policy when it comes to fielding comments, complaints or suggestions from the workers. This can be viewed as a sign of a healthy workplace environment: nobody has all the answers and problem-solving should be a collaborative process.
But an open-door policy on a tugboat, when taken literally, isn’t a good idea.
Working backwards through this series of photos, a closer look at this small tug with a short stern tow…
…reveals that all of the doors on the main deck are wide open. That’s broad-daylight-on-water showing through the engine room doors. If anything went wrong with the engines or steering with that barge so close astern they’d have little or no time to avoid being tripped, if it didn’t just run them over instead. Even without a failure on the tug itself something else could go wrong: maybe that sailboat all of a sudden turns in front of their bow. You never know what might happen so the best defense of all is to keep the doors closed and tightly dogged, particularly when towing close astern. Watertight doors also require maintenance (grease the dogs), proper alignment (use shims to adjust), a good seal (clean, pliable gaskets) and periodic testing (chalk around the knife edge) if they are to be fully effective. But regardless, a closed door with an imperfect seal is still way better than a door that seals perfectly but is left pinned open all the time.
These photos weren’t posted to embarrass anyone or to throw them under the bus, and I debated whether or not I should even use them at all. But ultimately the safety imperative is the most important consideration here, or at least it should be. I have lots more where these came from because the practice is far more common than it should be. The Coast Guard, for its part, repeatedly warns about the dangers of this practice via their Safety Alerts, but still it goes on. Some of it, no doubt, comes from mariners who just don’t care. But some of it comes from the fact that it can get so damned hot in the engine room when the weather starts to warm up that it’s simply intolerable to humans except for very short periods of time. Conditions like that are certainly not conducive to getting the crew to make diligent and thorough rounds of the machinery spaces, let alone perform regular maintenance on a vessel that runs most of the time and whose engine room seldom cools down. In this case the photos were taken on a nice spring day in New York Harbor, with an air temperature in the upper 60′s and the water still in the 50′s. So I doubt very much that the engine room would have been so hot that this was absolutely necessary. But then again, I don’t work on that boat so I don’t know for sure.
What I do know is this: tugs have very little reserve buoyancy and so cannot afford to take a chance on losing any of it. Down-flooding of the engine room, which is what can and does happen when doors are left open, is virtually guaranteed to sink you, and fast. But humans have physiological limits too, and if people are pushed too far out of their comfort zone they simply will cease to perform. Failing to account and adequately allow for human requirements is a long-term systemic problem in the marine industry and any tug that must have the main deck doors open in hot weather is, by definition, both unsafe and unseaworthy. Regardless of whether the leading cause industry-wide is shortcomings with tug design and engine room ventilation systems, the attitudes of mariners manning the boats or, most likely, a combination of both, the problem still persists. More work needs to be done in educating mariners about the dangers as well as ensuring that engine rooms aren’t as hot as the surface of Mercury, thereby guaranteeing that this practice will necessarily continue as a heat-stroke avoidance tactic. If a requirement for adequate ventilation, including clear performance standards, is not included in the first draft of the upcoming new towing vessel inspection regulations then it was a major oversight that will need to be corrected in the first round of comments and revisions.