Confined Spaces/Inhalation & A Recent Alert

Maritime Injuries Jul 20, 2022

For many offshore and maritime employees, working in confined spaces is part of the job. Unfortunately, working in confined spaces can be dangerous—especially offshore, and especially when employers prioritize their profits over their employees’ safety.

U.S. Coast Guard: Multiple Factors Contributed to Crewmembers’ Exposure to Dangerous Levels of Gas in Confined Fish Hold

For example, the U.S. Coast Guard recently issued a Marine Safety Alert warning of the dangers of working in fish holds on commercial fishing vessels. As the U.S. Coast Guard explains, commercial fishing vessel operators must verify the atmospheric conditions in their fish holds because failure to do so can expose workers to potentially fatal hazards:

“There are specific hazards associated with the use of brine dip solutions, a common substance used in the industry. Brine dip combined with standing water can produce dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide (H2S). The U.S. Coast Guard is currently investigating a marine casualty where dangerous levels of H2S were present on a commercial fishing vessel, resulting in the hospitalization of crewmembers on board.”

The U.S. Coast Guard issued its Marine Safety Alert after investigating a case in which a crewmember of a commercial fishing vessel fell into a fish hold where he was overcome by high levels of hydrogen sulfide. When another crewmember attempted to help them, this second crewmember “was immediately overcome by the gas and also fell into the hold.” The crewmembers had to be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard and the local fire department’s certified confined space entry team, and they each spent several days in intensive care following their ordeal.

According to the Marine Safety Alert, the U.S. Coast Guard identified multiple factors that contributed to the fish hold becoming filled with dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide. These factors included:

  • The crew had disabled the high water alarms in the fishing vessel’s bilge during cleaning and never reactivated them.
  • The fishing vessel left port without the typical cleaning done to the vessel’s fish hold (the vessel had been forced back to port by a storm and the crew never cleaned it properly).
  • The crew did not follow proper practices for draining sacks of shrimp before lowering them into the hold, “causing them to drip water and excess brine mixture containing Sodium-Metabisulfite into the shaft bilge space.”

All of these issues were avoidable. Had the commercial fishing vessel’s owner prioritized safety and encouraged the crew to take their time and thoroughly check the ship’s bilge and fish hold prior to leaving port, it is likely that the incident never would have happened.

Working in Confined Spaces Presents Several Inhalation Risks for Offshore and Maritime Employees

This case highlights one of many risks offshore, and maritime employees face when working in confined spaces. In addition to the risk of exposure to dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide, other inhalation risks associated with working in confined spaces include:

  • Inhalation of dangerous biological materials
  • Inhalation of fumes from chemicals and compounds used onboard (i.e., ammonia, chlorine, and sulfur dioxide)
  • Inhalation of gasoline and diesel fumes
  • Smoke inhalation
  • Welding fume inhalation

For offshore and maritime workers, the risk of inhalation is magnified in confined spaces. In confined spaces, there is nowhere for dangerous fumes to go, and there is no way for fresh oxygen to get in (or there is only a limited supply of clean air). Workers can quickly become overwhelmed, and in many cases, they can lose consciousness before they are able to escape the confined space. Unless another crewmember happens to notice that they are missing, this can be a deadly scenario.

What Can (and Should) Offshore and Maritime Employers Do to Protect Employees Who Work in Confined Spaces?

Given the inhalation risks associated with working in confined spaces onboard commercial vessels and in other marine work environments, what can (and should) offshore and maritime employers do to protect their employees? The U.S. Coast Guard recommends:

  • Develop a Checklist – Offshore and maritime employers should use checklists to ensure that their vessels are “ready to proceed to sea in all respects.” This includes ensuring that their bilges are clean and free of standing water, that all alarms are functioning properly, and that crewmembers have access to the safety equipment they will need in the event of an emergency.
  • Conduct Routine Training – Companies that operate in offshore and maritime environments should conduct routine training sessions “regarding [the] hazards of confined space entry” into fish holds and other areas. This includes training employees to recognize different types of odors, to ensure that they know how to use the vessels’ alarms, and to ensure that they always leave themselves a way out.
  • Provide Safety Equipment – Offshore and maritime employers should provide their employees with all of the safety equipment they need to avoid heath and fatality risks onboard. Employers should also train their employees on the proper use of safety equipment as necessary.
  • Follow Offshore and Maritime Workplace Safety Standards – Employers should require and encourage their employees to follow applicable offshore and maritime workplace safety standards at all times. For example, for commercial fishing vessels, the U.S. Coast Guard advises that crewmembers should be instructed to “[k]eep brine out of the fish hold as much as practicable by allowing the sacks dipped in brine to drain for a sufficient amount of time.”
  • Monitor for Health and Safety Risks – In addition to taking steps to prevent health and safety risks, offshore and maritime workers should also have systems in place to monitor for these risks while conducting operations or while their vessels are underway. For example, vessel operators should “[m]onitor water accumulation in the bilges while underway and pump them down as needed.”

Do You Need Help Recovering After an Offshore or Maritime Accident? Schedule a Free Consultation Today

If you need help recovering after an offshore or maritime accident involving inhalation in a confined space, we can help. To discuss your legal rights with an experienced attorney in confidence, please call 800-468-4878 or request a free consultation online today. 

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