Accident Prevention and Safety at Sea


At sea, just as ashore, most accidents are preventable. However, the environment and working conditions aboard seagoing vessels pose additional hazards not found ashore. The responsibilities to avoid accidents flow from the top down; from the shore establishment to the Master, to each and every individual aboard. "Safety awareness" by all hands is the biggest single factor in reducing accidents.

As a researcher, you pride yourself in being knowledgeable and proficient in the demands of your discipline. You have undoubtedly acquired patience and a demand for attention to detail when working in the lab to ensure the validity of your research. The demand for such attributes is no less great when learning to live safely aboard a research vessel.

The old cliché "It's not my job" does not apply at sea. Ashore, you can go home and forget about work and the safety-related aspects of your work surroundings. You can easily travel a different route if there is construction work on your normal route. A power failure at home is an inconvenience. You are aware of any medical emergency only by the ambulance sirens. Aboard your ship, not only will you need to be aware of any construction or deck operations, you must be able to determine when and where it is safe to pass. A power failure aboard ship can be catastrophic. A medical emergency aboard ship affects everyone-you may be the only person available to assist the victim.



Shipboard Environment. As a research party member, you must learn to live and work safely in a potentially dangerous shipboard environment. Such factors as motion, noise, vibration, temperature extremes, close living conditions, rotating machinery, and lines under tension are not normally encountered on shore. Almost all who go to sea will, at one time or another, be seasick. The saying that you first fear that you will die and later fear that you won't is not too far from fact. A seasick person should be given only light duties until recovered and should never be assigned duties that require alertness, caution, or agility. Medicines that prevent motion sickness can sometimes cause drowsiness-beware of this! Ship's motion can cause fatigue in two ways. First, it's sometimes very difficult to sleep when the vessel is pitching and rolling. Even in fairly calm seas, it takes a newcomer one or two nights to adjust. Secondly, just moving about on a vessel in angry seas takes physical effort which in time, will wear down the most fit. Fatigue promotes carelessness.

When temperature extremes are too great, overall performance is impaired. Besides the debilitating effects of sunstroke, heat exhaustion, frostbite, hypothermia, etc., lesser physical impairments are possible. These include increased reaction time, decreased mental awareness, loss of dexterity and coordination, and fatigue.

Noise can have both a physiological and a psychological effect. Permanent hearing loss can be the result of sustained high noise level as well as extreme loud noises of short duration. Confinement aboard a ship in the fog can be unnerving with the constant sound of the fog horn hour after hour and even days on end. Similar detrimental effects can be caused by days of air gun firing. These noises create tension and an atmosphere which may promote an accident. Working around noisy equipment for an extended period of time can cause physical and psychological damage. It is important that you recognize and avoid these potential dangers.

The sun shines brightly at sea, causing glare conditions. Proper eye shading is a necessity. At the other end of the spectrum is night vision. A bright light on a dark bridge or other working area can be blinding. It takes several minutes readjusting your eyes. It is important that you determine the time needed to establish your night vision; it is equally important that you learn to avoid blinding others who have already established their night vision with an unmindful flashlight in the face or any bright white light, to a darkened condition-referred to as establishing night vision. Red lights do not have a blinding effect and must be used when maintaining night vision.

In a shipboard environment-especially confined spaces-you may be exposed to chemical agents in the air. Containing and exhausting laboratory fumes present an additional challenge aboard ships. Recognize these potential hazards! What is acceptable in a shoreside lab may not be suitable in a much more confined shipboard environment.

There are a number of factors which contribute to accidents; few accidents have a single cause. The immediate cause is usually the most apparent, but is not necessarily the underlying cause which may be harder to pinpoint and usually answers the question "why" for any accident. Some of the major factors contributing to accidents on research vessels are:

  • Shipboard Environment
  • Equipment and Materials
  • Training and Experience
  • Communications

At sea, slips and falls are the leading causes of injury. Do you know how to properly climb a ladder? Developing "sea legs" is not only gaining experience in navigating wet decks but also knowing what footwear to wear as well as learning to be wary and cautious.

If you do not want to go through life being called "Lefty," learn how to steady yourself without placing your hands on the doorjamb (the knife edge) when traveling through watertight doors.

Equipment and Material. Defective, improperly installed, or improperly used equipment is a major contributing cause of accidents. In doing research from a ship at sea, a lot of faith is placed in machinery and equipment. Whether deploying science packages, working in the labs, or going about your daily routine, you must rely on properly functioning shipboard and scientific equipment. The sudden failure of equipment due to overloading or defective materials almost always leads to an injury. Many pieces of machinery are inherently dangerous and are therefore provided with safety guards, warning signs, and are assigned safe working loads. Ignoring these safety features defeats their purpose.

What are the side effects of some motion sickness medicines? What are the more subtle physical impairments of temperature extremes? Do you know why ships use internal red light at night? Do you know how the basic deck machinery works and where not to be when it is activated? Do you know how or even why you would want to dog a hatch? Learning to find your way around the ship, to understand the terminology, and to recognize factors that have traditionally proven to be causes of accidents takes a little time; take time now!

Training and Experience. A lack of skill, experience, and knowledge concerning shipboard procedures can easily lead to accidents. During your initial exposure to a procedure or a piece of equipment, extra care and supervision may be necessary until everyone is far enough along on the "learning curve" to make for a safe operation. By paying attention and learning proper procedures, you can eliminate unnecessary accidents.

Communications. People react to what they think they hear, not necessarily what the person speaking actually says. Poor communications due to such factors as language barriers, unfamiliar terminology, background noise, or failure to speak distinctly lead to misunderstanding, mistakes, and ultimately, accidents. The person in charge must establish and maintain good communications in order to coordinate the efforts of a team. Listen so that you clearly understand the hazards you face and their possible consequences.



An effective accident prevention program is built on the tenets of management and supervisory commitment, safety awareness, and training.

Management and Supervisory Commitment. This includes budgeting time and funds for safety-related activities and equipment; the willingness to reject unsafe practices which might at times, especially under pressure, seem expedient; and positive reaction when risks and/or safer ways to do things are pointed out by crew members.

Shipboard living aboard a research vessel is not a passive exercise-if you are not constantly aware of your surroundings, then you can endanger yourself and other crew and scientific members. Although your circumstances as a research party member may not allow you to participate in most shipboard duties, the limited amenities and services of a research vessel require that at the very least you be able to take care of yourself.

Safety Awareness. Safety aspects of every operation should be routinely considered by all hands. All hands should be aware of the effectiveness of the safety program. The RVOC has collected accident statistics showing the collective accident rate to be rather low (good). However, there is no justification for accepting the current rate as "good enough" since virtually all accidents can be prevented.

Learning to move around your vessel will provide you many new challenges. When climbing vertical ladders, always face the ladder-do not attempt to go backwards. Always hold on to the rail. Avoid using portable ladders unless absolutely necessary-and then, only if it is lashed to an immovable object. When two or more people are using the ladder at the same time, the second person should stay far enough below as not to get kicked in the head, and should not look upward in case of falling dirt or rust. Avoid carrying large objects up or down ladders or stairs; instead, pass or hoist them in assembly-line fashion. Avoid blocking stairwells while stopped in conversation or by placing an object in front of stairs or ladders.

Corridors and passageways should be kept free. While entrance and exit passageways serve as travel routes from one end of the ship to another, they also serve as emergency exit routes. Never block entrance and exit passages with objects. When objects are stored in a passageway, they should not block or be on top of any emergency escape hatch.

Watertight doors normally remain closed, even during calm seas. Watertight doors that are required to be open are done so by latching them in an open position (even in calm seas, be very wary of watertight doors that "swing" with the ship). During heavy weather, dog all watertight doors. Dog the side opposite the hinge side first.

Training. Ships' crews and researchers must be trained in both emergency procedures and in safe practices. The RVOC Safety Training Manual is to be the basis for such training.