Confined Space Entry: The Old Days

file photo
file photo of ballast tank

Published Jan 6, 2020 6:43 PM by John L. Ratcliffe

I have been a professional mariner since 1983 when I graduated from MMA. Since that time I have worked tugs, factory trawlers, tankers, high speed vessels, drill ships, container ships, grain ships, heavy lift and ro-ros. Each type of vessel has it's own unique hazards; one of the most hazardous is confined space entry, mainly due to either lack of understanding, or even more common, understanding and knowledge but ambivalence and complacency.

By far, the safest industry I have ever worked in was drilling. Perhaps it was my employer, Transocean, but it was understood that shortcuts might get the job done but would also get you fired. 

Being a tankerman for most of my career, working for five different tanker companies, showed me that safety on the job site is all over the place, in my experience. 

I am old enough to remember when the tank entry was routine, with no hole watch. Some 20+ years ago, I almost died in a tank on my ship as second mate when I made entry (after I personally sniffed the tank 30 minutes earlier) and unbeknownst to me, someone opened a main cargo block valve either after I sniffed it or while I was in there, I never found out, as no one owned up to it. I was partially carried/dragged out by the chief mate who broke the cardinal rule to come down and get me. This experience certainly changed my outlook on tank entries.

More recently, doing tank inspections as chief mate I found that, since going on vacation, the personal meters required under company policy had either expired or broken, and when I mentioned this to the powers that be I was told: “So what, you know the tank is good right?” Yeah, I knew the tank was good, it was also good 20 years ago the day I got gassed.

This mentality needs to change. The old school thought process I was once a part of needs to go away. Sometimes I get aggravated by the youngsters coming out of school who want a respirator to do needle gunning and are afraid of getting diesel on their hands. I then remind myself that these young men and women are more likely to stay alive being overly cautious than us old timers.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.