‘Maritime industry needs to recognise and address the risk of mobile phones’

The potential for mobile phones to cause distraction in onboard workspaces has yet to be fully recognised and addressed by the marine industry, says The Nautical Institute after a fatal accident on board a ro/ro vessel. The incident involved a crew member taking a personal call while standing on the stern ramp.

The Nautical Institute gathers reports of maritime accidents and near-misses. It then publishes these so-called Mars Reports (anonymously) to prevent other accidents from happening. A summary of this incident:

Semi-trailers were being discharged from the hold of a ro-ro vessel by tractor units belonging to the terminal. A tractor was pushing a semi-trailer up the lower vehicle deck ramp and then down the vessel’s stern ramp and onto the quay. One of the vessel’s officers, dressed in an orange boiler suit, was standing near the stern ramp. He started a personal call on his mobile telephone. While he was talking, he walked along the starboard side of the main vehicle deck and on to the starboard side of the stern ramp.

As the officer talked on his phone, he remained standing on the stern ramp’s starboard side, gradually moving down the ramp towards the quay with his back to the vessel. Meanwhile, the semi-trailer being pushed down the ramp was approaching. Another tractor driver, in his cab on the quay, saw the danger and sounded his horn to give warning.

Approximately three seconds later, the rear of the semi-trailer struck the victim, fatally injuring him.

Investigation findings

The official investigation found that the tractor driver’s view ahead was blocked by the semi-trailer; the victim would not have been visible to him. Furthermore, he was not expecting pedestrians to be standing on the ramp directly ahead of his vehicle.

The victim had probably not heard the semi-trailer approaching as the sound of the tractor’s reversing alarm and its engine would have been masked by the ambient noise of the vessel. Also, the reversing alarm would have been absorbed or reflected to some degree by the semi-trailer between the tractor and the victim, to say nothing of the victim holding a phone to his ear and being absorbed in a conversation.

Also read: Distracted officer of the watch results in vessel grounding

Advice from The Nautical Institute

  • Relying on a strategy of “see and be seen”, with the onus on pedestrians to keep out of the way, has fundamental weaknesses. Among other things, it does not take into account the limited visibility from a cab pushing a semi-trailer or the potential for distractions.
  • The potential for mobile phones to cause distraction in onboard workspaces has yet to be fully recognised and addressed by the marine industry. Several organisations have issued warnings considering their use on board. The US Coast Guard for example, issued a safety advisory stating that it ‘strongly recommends vessel owners and operators to develop and implement effective operational policies outlining when the use of cellular telephones and other devices is appropriate or prohibited.’
    The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency also encouraged ‘the development of a procedure to cover the use of mobile phones in such situations to be incorporated, where appropriate, into the vessel’s safety management system, as part of International Safety Management (ISM) Code compliance’ in its Marine Guidance MGN 299.
  • The safety actions taken subsequent to this accident included:
    – Updating loading procedure for the lower vehicle decks to ensure that discharge from the lower hold is by forward driving only.
    – Updating company guidelines to prohibit pedestrians, including crew members, from being on the stern ramp at the same time as moving vehicles unless actively engaged in the loading/unloading of abnormal loads or vehicles with low ground clearance.

Mars Reports

This accident was covered in the Mars Reports, originally published as Mars 202067, that are part of Report Number 338. A selection of this Report has also been published in SWZ|Maritime’s January 2021 issue. The Nautical Institute compiles these reports to help prevent maritime accidents. That is why they are also published on SWZ|Maritime’s website.

More reports are needed to keep the scheme interesting and informative. All reports are read only by the Mars coordinator and are treated in the strictest confidence. To submit a report, please use the Mars report form.

Author: Mariska Buitendijk

Mariska Buitendijk is one of SWZ|Maritime's journalists as well as the magazine's copy editor.