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Going into the Unknown – Why So Many Seafarers Keep Dying


There is a problem at sea, and it will not go away. Every year seafarers are being killed by being in the wrong place, at the wrong time…and doing the wrong things. So how can we stop enclosed space deaths?


A seafarer walks into a tank, and collapses. A colleague peering in sees it happen, that seafarer rushes in to help…and yes, collapses too. Then another, then another…all trying to do the right thing, but getting it all so very wrong indeed.

Sadly, while it might sound like the above would be both impossible and even ridiculous, it does happen. So many times, crewmates have tried to rush in to save the lives of others, only to succumb themselves.

Deaths during enclosed or confined space entry are one of the most serious, but also avoidable accidents on ships today. Amazingly though, a new study has revealed the death rate has increased over 300 percent in recent times. A staggering statistic, which is prompting calls for action at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and changes to the way in which seafarers are trained and made aware of the dangers.

The problem is not only still here, it is seemingly getting worse. So, why do seafarers go into tanks or spaces without taking the right precautions? Why then do people rush in without the right equipment? People are dying, and it is time it stopped!

“Amazingly though, a new study has revealed the death rate has increased over 300 percent in recent times.”


Shipping is incredibly regulated, but it seems clear that the rules, checklists, procedures, and plans simply cannot be working. If they did, then the needless, senseless and tragic deaths would stop.

The data is stark, six people will die every year in a dry bulk carrier as a result of the cargo. They will enter cargo holds, or tanks and be asphyxiated or poisoned, and will collapse. That is the cold hard truth.

With so many deaths, so much danger, and with so many rules in place – why is the message failing? Why are deaths still happening? Is it that the existing recommendations for entering enclosed spaces on board ships are being made, IMO Resolution A.1050(27) needs amendment to provide guidance on risk assessments?

The guidance was last revised in 2011, and in 8 years the death toll has only grown bigger. There has been some change in that time, with rules for atmosphere testing and the use of equipment. However, amazingly there are still problems – and still, seafarers are losing their lives.


So, what are the changes which could reduce deaths from enclosed space entry, or working in confined spaces? Well, suggestions include:

  • Keeping the danger real with practical, operational steps: Regular drills related to entry into enclosed spaces, and a campaign to educate and spread awareness of the safety equipment available could assist in minimising casualties.
  • Make seafarers think about the dangers differently: There is currently pressure to frequently inspect enclosed spaces, as required by planned maintenance or Classification Society requirements. This means people are too often going into danger – perhaps it is time for remote inspection tools, or even change to the inspection criteria and maintenance period to allow for a proper shore side checks for safe entry.
  • Take ownership of the risks: There are calls for a designated person on board to be made responsible for ensuring enclosed space entry procedures, and to ensure that best practice, is documented, available on board and strictly followed. Someone must take full responsibility for ensuring all safety parameters are checked before permitting entry.
  • Port State Control to make checks: Port State control inspectors could assist by inspecting a vessel’s readiness on how enclosed space entries are undertaken. It would be a pain but could save lives if more enclosed entry drills were held – not just for when things go wrong.
  • Make sure that lessons are learned: Shipping has much to learn from other industries, such as mining. The mining industry has a far higher safety level when dealing with entry into enclosed spaces. So, there seems to be much that can be learned and applied onboard. While we need to also learn from deaths onboard. It is not nice to think of those seafarers who die, but if their loss can stop more deaths, then.
  • Better training and enhanced education: Seafarers train for the known, crews must be aware of the dangers and what they should do in specific situations. We also need to educate for the unknown, making sure that seafarers perceive and react to risks in ways which can protect them and their shipmates.
  • Make companies accountable too: Some shipping organisations believe that change is needed, and that incident investigations should not simply stop at blaming officers onboard. They should continue to look up the change and point the finger at the management company. Making those ashore accountable will surely bring improvements.
  • Time to rethink designs: Ship designers and naval architects should start thinking of ships with enclosed spaces in mind. Can these spaces be limited? Can they have better access, better ventilation, can it be made easier to rescue someone from them. It is time to think about the long-term implications of the spaces created on ships, especially if seafarers must enter them.
  • Time to deploy technology: Every space should have gas metering equipment and every seafarer should be equipped with a gas detection system. Also, why not use technology for access control, so spaces only become accessible when they are safe.

The loss of seafarers in enclosed spaces are tragedies, perhaps made even worse as they are recurring preventable accidents which are not being properly addressed. When a seafarer climbs the gangway at the start of a trip, we all need to work together to ensure they safely return home – and so changes are clearly needed.

What do you think about the enclosed space dangers and debate? We would love to hear your thoughts.