The U.S. Coast Guard has issued yet another safety alert regarding the risks and consequences of running around with your doors wide open, improperly secured, and/or poorly maintained. On this occasion it cost one man working in the engine room his life and two others barely escaped the same fate after spending what was no doubt a terrifying 10+ minutes in an air pocket in the berthing area before getting out through a broken window.
Watertight doors (WTD’s) and hatches (WTH’s) must seal properly to be effective (duh!). That means that the dogs must all be operable, the gasket must be in good condition, and the knife edge must be even, rust-free, smooth, and make solid contact all the way around the gasket. The only way to confirm this is to periodically do a chalk test. Dogs must also be greased, striker plates cleaned and the gasket changed out whenever necessary. When cutting the gasket make sure it’s done at a 45-degree angle so that a gap isn’t created when it’s squeezed against the knife edge, and center it on the hinged side. Clean it once in a while, and don’t allow any paint to accumulate on it. Then, of course, you must keep them closed when underway and they’re not being actively used.
Despite what may seem to be solely a human factors problem originating with the mariners, there’s another side of these repetitive incidents that needs to be explored much further. It’s a fact that doors are sometimes pinned open when a boat is running not because the crew doesn’t know any better or they just got lazy and didn’t give a damn, but because of poor design. In the summer months, especially in the lower latitudes (with their warmer water and high humidity and air temperatures), it can get dreadfully hot in the engine room and the blowers and exhaust fans (even if they’re all working) may not provide enough ventilation to keep the engines (or the engineers) from overheating. The bottom line is that adequate ventilation, erring on the side of overkill if need be, is very important. If the engine room isn’t tolerable to occupy long enough to make regular and diligent rounds and perform routine maintenance and repair duties because of oppressive heat then one of two things will happen: either the doors will be pinned open so that it is tolerable or else no one will spend more than a very brief period of time down there, and neither of these outcomes is desirable from a safety standpoint. On the financial side, engines that occupy a space that is overly hot for prolonged periods will have a shortened life-expectancy as well, both from the heat itself and the less-than-ideal rounds and maintenance that results from it. Big diesels don’t come cheap.
A secondary problem is the use of standard WTD’s in high-traffic areas. To expect mariners, even the most conscientious among us, to fully un-dog and re-dog a WTD with six manually-operated dogs as we go back and forth many dozens of times a day is to be unrealistic to an extreme. Risky or not, these doors will often be pinned open or only secured with one dog. The only practical way to address this problem is to use quick-acting WTD’s (QAWTD’s) in the high-traffic locations. Yes, they cost more. But they cost a lot less than a sunken boat, the lives that are lost, and the pollution incidents that always follow.
This is no small matter and as we move closer to formal towing vessel inspections we can only hope that the Coast Guard, particularly the Office of Design & Engineering Standards or whoever they’ve decided to farm the job out to (ABS?), takes this into consideration before approving any new vessel designs. If they haven’t included it in the NPRM we’ll certainly point it out during the public comment period. I’m quite sure that this will not be the last time that the Coast Guard will be issuing a safety alert or accident report with an open door being the root cause of the tragedy. I’ve also written about it before (here and here) and I’m sure that I’ll be writing about it again (and again) as well. On an individual level you have to decide how important your life is to you, as well as those of your shipmates, and then act accordingly.
Please read Safety Alert #04-10 for all of the details. The Coast Guard has thoughtfully attached the three other related safety alerts to the end of it as well. We have collected all of their relevant safety alerts and lessons learned here, or you can go to the Coast Guard’s Investigations page.