The incident

Three engineering technicians were about to disembark from a 180m long bulk carrier that was departing from port. The technicians had completed works on the ship during its outbound river passage.

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The bulk carrier was in ballast with a freeboard of more than 11.5m. As the pilot requested, the ship’s crew had rigged a combination ladder on the
starboard side, including an accommodation ladder and pilot ladder. A pilot boat came to help the three technicians embark, followed by the port pilot. The ship’s bosun and an OS were at the ladder to supervise the disembarkation.

The three technicians then walked down the accommodation ladder to the top of the pilot ladder. With the pilot boat in position alongside the ship’s side, the first technician began to descend the pilot ladder. The first technician was about 1.5m from the pilot boat’s deck when the second
technician stepped onto the pilot ladder. The pilot ladder immediately failed. Both of the ladder side ropes parted, and both technicians fell approximately 1.5m and 7m respectively. Both were taken to hospital by ambulance, but fortunately none of them sustained serious
injuries.

Probable cause

The pilot ladder that had failed was only 15 months old. An internal investigation by the company concluded that the pilot ladder side ropes had failed because of exposure to salt deposits and sunlight, which the ship’s crew had not identified.

Lessons learned
  • The IMO Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V, Regulation 23, sets out the principal requirements for the rigging of pilot ladders. This regulation states that ‘Pilot ladders shall be kept clean, properly maintained and stowed and shall be regularly inspected to ensure that they are safe to use. They shall be used solely for the embarkation and disembarkation of personnel.’ In this case, the relatively new pilot ladder had not been properly maintained and stowed, and deterioration to the pilot ladder side ropes had not been identified. Do not store ladders on an open deck where the ropes are exposed to contaminants or elements that can degrade the ropes (Figure 3). After use, ladders should ideally be hung up clear of the deck and stored wherever possible in a clean, dry environment. They must also be protected from oil, chemicals, paint, or any other source of contamination that could affect their strength.
  • Routine maintenance inspections of pilot ladders should be a part of the ship’s planned maintenance system. Inspections should include opening the rope splice to view the internal state of the material.
  • The SOLAS convention also states that ‘embarkation of a pilot shall be supervised by a responsible officer having means of communication with the navigation bridge’. In this case a responsible officer was not monitoring the transfer of personnel to the pilot boat.
  • Pilot ladders should never be used by more than one person at a time. Use by multiple persons may overload the ladder and may cause it to move.