At about 0600 on 11 December, a site supervisor and a boilermaker from a local engineering firm (Varley) boarded the ship. The process of removing the stoppers was discussed along with the safety measures and procedures to be followed.
The work commenced in the number two cargo hold tween deck. Gaps between the tween deck pontoons were filled with fire blankets (made from woven fibre and leather) to stop sparks from falling onto the cloth-covered cargo in the lower hold. A small diameter fresh water hose was laid out and a makeshift water spray extinguisher readied for immediate use in the lower hold. Cargo in the lower hold was covered with the transport cloth, but was not covered with fire blankets.
At 1015, the boilermaker began removing the stoppers. The port captain asked that sparks be directed away from the cargo to protect the component surfaces. This request, in some cases, resulted in the sparks being directed toward gaps between the tween deck pontoons.
The work continued as expected and, at 1100, the boilermaker stopped to relocate to the next stoppers on the tween deck. As part of checking the new work area, he lifted a fire blanket and could see small flames and smoke in the lower hold through the gap in the tween deck pontoons. He immediately raised the alarm. The lower hold fire watch was notified on the radio. At the time he was notified, he was not near the area directly under where the work was being conducted. After moving to the relevant area, he quickly extinguished the fire using the water hose and water spray.
An inspection of the work site following the fire identified that molten metal and other hot material produced by the hot work had burned through the fire blankets. This hot material fell onto the material covering the cargo in the lower hold, resulting in the fire. As a result of the fire, the material covering the cargo was damaged and some surface blemishes were apparent on the cargo itself. No other damage was reported. Subsequent inspection of the cargo covering material found it to be 100% polyester transport cloth with a maximum rated temperature of 200 °C.
- The fire on BBC Xingang started during the oxy-acetylene cutting and gouging removal of sea fastenings. Molten metal and other hot material produced by this work burned through protective fire blankets in place around the site, and fell onto unprotected cargo below.
- The cargo stowed below the work site was covered with flammable polyester material which had not been adequately identified and protected prior to the work commencing. Transport cloth is made of 100% polyester and will ignite if directly exposed to fire. As a consequence, when the hot material fell onto the unprotected transport cloth it resulted in the fire.
- A fire watch was present in the lower hold but had not been directed to closely monitor immediately below the work site so was not in position to quickly react when the molten metal fell from above.
- Despite the safety actions taken after previous fires, flammable cargo coverings were again ignited during sea fastening removal on this occasion.
- Ship fires due to hot work to remove sea fastenings are a constant danger. The continuing incidence of hot work related fires during the removal of sea fastenings highlights the importance of maintaining vigilance throughout the entire process. This is especially important if this is a regular task and is at risk of becoming routine. Procedures and practices along with the equipment available for completion of the task need to be reviewed and assessed and used as appropriate.
- Hot work requires the implementation of comprehensive risk controls and procedures. These should include, but not be limited to, detailed, task-specific appraisals, risk and hazard assessments, work permits and pre-work toolbox meetings. Ultimately, the responsibility for the implementation of these controls rests with the ship, in consultation with third parties if involved. This is especially important when shore labour is employed to complete the work and multiple organisations’ work requirements and procedures are involved.
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