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Man Overboard: What Do You Really Do?

A semi-overlapping combination of federal regulations, company operations and safety policies, and customer/charterer requirements mandates that many of us in the towing industry conduct an array of safety/response/regulatory-compliance drills and inspections with, and provide instruction of same to, our crews every month. This generally, but not always, includes the big three: Man Overboard (MOB), Abandon Ship (AS) and Firefighting (FF), among others.

Of those three, by my estimation, the MOB drill offers the least benefit to my crew as things stand today. Why? Because it’s largely a waste of time to drill for an evolution (specifically, recovering a Person in the Water, or PIW) that our vessel, along with the majority of towing vessels, is not physically equipped to perform. Just as important, it can also fool people into thinking that certain standard or assumed (but untested) strategies and techniques will work when they really have little chance of success and will only endanger the rest of the crew. Hoping, wishful or delusional thinking, or praying to your favorite deity is no substitute for a real plan, so for MOB I normally tend to focus mostly on prevention, rather than response, because our response capabilities are so limited. This is a problem throughout the industry and can be attributed directly to a long-standing lack of adequate safety regulations. Some individual companies have, either of their own accord or possibly because of pressure from their insurance underwriters, been more proactive on this issue lately but there is still a long way to go.

Yes, sad but true: as of right now there is not and has never been a requirement of any kind, or even a reasonably strong official recommendation from any of the regulatory or industry playahs, that a towing vessel be properly equipped to successfully conduct a direct physical recovery of a PIW. This fact is at stark odds with another fact: that the vast majority of fatalities involving towing vessels are as a result of falling into the water and subsequently drowning. According to the Uninspected Towing Vessel Industry Analysis Project Final Report (Section 4 – Towing Vessel Accident History & Risk Evaluation) there were 90 reported fatalities, of which  80 were “contact fatalities”, between 1994 and 2004. Of that number (80), 73% (or a total of 58) died after going into the water. There were also 2,534 reported injuries, of which 1,935 were “contact injuries”, over the same period. Of the contact injuries only 2% (a total of 39) were as a result of a fall into the water. Translation: if you get killed working aboard a towing vessel the odds are overwhelming that it will be because of a fall into the water (from your boat, a barge, the dock or whatever), but if you get injured it’s highly unlikely that this was the cause. Valuable Lesson: always wear a life jacket whenever you’re working on deck (or crossing between boat, barge or dock) and your odds of surviving a fall into the water go way up, especially if you’re injured prior to or during the fall.

I’ll also take this opportunity to point out that AWO’s Responsible Carrier Program, which is held up as the industry’s self-regulation standard for the safe operation of towing vessels, and recently updated in January 2009, still has a glaring omission in that it contains no specific requirement, or even a vague recommendation, for mandatory MOB drills or recovery equipment. Given all that is known, how responsible is that? “Fall overboard prevention” is listed in Section II. Management & Administration / Sub-section B. Safety Policy & Procedures, but that’s all you’ll find on the subject. Sub-section F., Emergency Response Procedures, makes no mention of it. This despite the fact that Sub-section G. Internal Audit & Review Procedures requires that companies have performance measurement procedures in place (item #8) which track the number and rate of man-hours, fatalities, recordable injuries, lost-time injuries and falls overboard. Sub-section C., Firefighting & Lifesaving Equipment, in Sections III & IV, Equipment & Inspection for inland and coastal towing vessels, respectively, is also silent on this. In Section V. Human Factors / Sub-section C. Training it is specified that as of May 2009 all hands, including tankermen and entry-level personnel, receive initial and refresher training (at intervals of not more than 5 years) in fall overboard prevention. This recent change is definitely for the better, but prevention is not a substitute for having both the ability and means to respond when prevention alone has failed, which it surely does. The Coast Guard, for its part,  has never made any noise about the issue of MOB recovery either.

Thinking about last month’s MOB drill while anchored in the Hudson River, I became weary at the thought of going through the motions yet again to meet some bureaucratic requirement that doesn’t make us any safer. So I decided to demonstrate to my crew, once and for all, that the idea of leaning over the bulwarks on the back deck of our 100-foot tug to simply grab someone by the collar and hoist them aboard like a 10-pound fish is just a pipe dream.

When I explained that my experiences had taught me, except in rare circumstances, that it isn’t feasible to do it that way they fidgeted uncomfortably. No one likes having their one and only security blanket taken away and they weren’t prepared to accept my argument at face value, no matter how powerful the logic. It was all they had. But I have a duty to train them as best I can to be ready to effectively respond to emergencies, with or without me around to provide direction, and allowing them to believe a longstanding but dangerous myth helps no one. It was time to show, not just tell.

It was flat calm where we were locked into push gear behind our anchored barge in the Hudson River, just above the George Washington Bridge, and 3 knots of ebbing current boiled past the hull. My crew assembled on the back deck and I donned a work vest. I then leaned over the 33-inch rail at the starboard quarter as far as I could. At full extension with my waist on the rail and feet flat on the deck, about double shoulder-width apart, I could just barely touch the deck on the outside. Between my outstretched hand and the surface of the water was another 2 to 2 1/2 feet. In between was fendering which sticks out 6 inches horizontally like a ledge. That distance might as well have been a mile: no way are you simply reaching out, grabbing an outstretched hand, and dragging them aboard. This is real life, not some ridiculous scene in one of the Die Hard movies. Keep in mind that at 6’3″ in height I’ve got far more reach than anyone else on my crew. If I couldn’t even come close to reaching the water, how would they ever do it?

At that point there were frowns all around. Happy, happy, joy, joy! Then I climbed over the rail and stood outside of the bulwarks on the narrow ledge (not every boat has this, either) facing forward. Hooking my left hand over the top and under the rail, I crouched and leaned down and away. This increased my reach by, at best, 2 to 3 inches compared to my first attempt, while being far less secure: the full weight of the PIW, as well as most of the rescuer’s weight, would be born by just that one hand, so just one slip and you’re gone too. Then you’ve got two PIW’s. Given how some companies man their vessels there might be only one person, or even none, left aboard the tug! “Does this look like it would work?” I asked. More frowns, plus shaking of heads. “Would you feel remotely comfortable doing this, even here in flat calm conditions?” Still more frowns, and more shaking of heads. The fact was that, with all that current, you’d be unlikely to even hold onto a person’s hand for more than a few moments if you weren’t drifting along with them, let alone do more. Their bubble had been burst and it was time to move on. Now we could get down to the serious business of thinking about and training for what we actually could do, which, as it happens, is very little if you aren’t properly equipped and prepared ahead of time.

This problem must be worked through sequentially to solve. To start with, if someone falls overboard but fails to remain on the surface they’re done for, so always wearing some form of PFD while on deck is essential. Secondly, you must be found. If you can’t be seen and/or heard that’s unlikely to happen unless you’re just incredibly lucky. To further both of those requirements the following items are highly recommended. First with the flotation…..

Again, to be seen is to be safer. Mustang Survival’s ANSI High Visibility Inflatable PFD (USA model #MD3183-T3) is light-weight, compact, comfortable, won’t interfere with you while you work and is, as claimed, highly visible, so you can be better seen when you’re out on the decks…..

…..or choose the Inflatable PFD with SOLAS Reflective Tape (USA model #MD3183-T2)…..

…..or the newly CG-approved Inflatable Work Vest (USA model