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Lifeboats on Cargo Ships Need to Be Redesigned to Improve Crew Safety

lifeboat redesign
CSSF points to safety problems with the design of lifeboats call for a redesign (file photo)

Published May 8, 2023 7:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

While there have been significant advancements in developing lifesaving equipment, the Container Ship Safety Forum says there are far too many injuries to crewmembers aboard cargo ships while launching lifeboats. The industry association, which has a goal to improve safety performance in the container shipping industry, says the time has come for the lifeboat to be reinvented to improve crew safety.

Over the years, many seafarers have been injured – some of them fatally – while launching the lifeboat during evacuations or evacuation drills. Not because the lifeboats have not been compliant with safety standards, but simply because the launch of a lifeboat is a dangerous task to perform.

They point to a 2017 report from the UK Chamber of Shipping as recognition of the problem. The UK article identified 60 fatalities during the testing of lifeboats over a 10-year period. The article suggested that the use of simulation training could improve safety. Last year, Canada's Transportation Safety Board released a report on a serious lifeboat-drill accident, illustrating the continuing hazards of this routine SOLAS safety exercise. 

A similar report for the UK P&I Club a decade ago pointed to the range of incidents. A lot of them were related to the launching of the boats during drills with the report saying that a sixth of all seafarers killed were injured in incidents directly related to lifeboats and their launching systems. A lot of the problems they related to the launch mechanism although they also cited instances of poor maintenance leading to failures.

“Everyone knows we have a problem,” says Aslak Ross, Chairman of the CSSF. “Seafarers are scared to launch lifeboats; however, no one has offered a plausible path towards a solution to the problem for cargo vessels. A change is needed to provide a safe environment for seafarers and to regain trust in lifesaving equipment.”

The group says that there is too much focus on compliance and training and not enough focus on the root cause of the problem, which is that the design of the equipment is too complicated and in the case of containerships lags behind other segments of shipping which have focused on improving safety systems.

“Simulation and use of new technology is one way to conduct drills in a safer environment, and we support the intent to reduce the risk of accidents, however, it does not solve the core of the problem,” says Ross. “Launching a lifeboat is too dangerous. And even though simulation has its advantages, it should only be used as a supplement to well-conducted onboard abandon ship drills where crews are familiarized with the ship specific equipment.”

The CSSF points to alternative designs that are already available for offshore installations and for passenger evacuation on passenger and cruise ships through Marine Evacuation Systems (MES). 

“Such systems should also be made available to cargo vessels without delay. It is long overdue to change the current environment and innovate to eliminate the risk of lifeboat accidents. We need approved systems that can be fitted to newbuildings – we need to safeguard our seafarers,” said Ross.

The CSSF is encouraging the industry, classification societies, flag states, and suppliers to launch innovation to replace current lifeboats with a safer technology.