The incident

The vessel normally operated with its machinery space unmanned (UMS), but at the time of the accident it was performing a task that required the engine room to be manned. The UMS patrol alarm was not deemed practical for use with the engine room manned and, as a result, an ad hoc system of communication between the duty engineer and the deck OOW had been developed to maintain contact. Over the course of several years the frequency of communication had reduced to such an extent that the lone engine room worker could operate for several hours without contact with the rest of the crew.

On the day of the accident, the duty engineer had completed the required operational tasks and was attempting to carry out repairs in the engine room. He had informed neither the OOW nor the chief engineer of the task.

Having discovered a fuel leak on the low pressure fuel return from the main engine, the duty engineer decided that he could complete a temporary repair without needing to shut down the engine. He collected tools from the workshop and began the task. It became apparent that to access the leak he would need to remove a pipe support bracket. The pipe run was under the engine room foorplates, and on inspection the pipe, bracket and securing bolts were found to be in poor condition. In order to remove the bracket, he decided to crop the support using a portable angle grinder.

In order to progress the repair, the engineer climbed into the bilge to access the bracket. Fuel from the leaking pipe atomised on contact with the surrounding structure and soaked the engineer’s coverall with diesel. Sparks generated during the cutting process ignited the atomised diesel, setting light to the engineer’s coverall and starting a fire in the engine room.

The engineer officer died as a result of the fire, and the vessel was out of service for more than a year.

Lessons learned

  1. Lone working in an engine room can be particularly hazardous. The Code of Safe Working Practices for Seafarers 2015 (COSWP) highlights precautions to be taken when working on UMS vessels. This includes regular contact with the OOW.
  2. COSWP also details maintenance requirements, including the need to carry out risk assessments and complete PTWs when appropriate. This also emphasizes the requirement to inform the OOW when working on machinery that could affect the operation of the vessel.
  3. Although not specifically identified as a ‘hot work’ process, cutting and grinding with abrasive discs generates high energy sparks that are capable of igniting an available fuel source. An HSE research project commissioned in 2004 specifically investigated the risk of coveralls being ignited by sparks from angle grinders. The resulting report (HSE Research Report 222) highlighted that only coveralls with fire retardant treatments offer protection from ignition. It demonstrated that natural fibre garments (i.e. cotton) have very little benefit over coveralls constructed from man-made fibres (i.e. polyester/cotton mixtures).
  4. Like on board many other vessels, the low pressure fuel pipework ran beneath the engine room foorplates and was therefore out of normal sight. The contents of IMO circular MSC.1/Circ.1321 - a paper aimed at reducing the risk of fires in pump rooms and engine rooms - recommends a 6-monthly inspection of all low pressure fuel system components to be included in a vessel’s SMS.