Drydocks are hazardous work places and common focal points for accidents in maritime environments. Lack of training, human error, unsatisfactory safety equipment, and other factors lead to serious, and sometimes fatal, incidents. There are many types of accidents that can occur.
The most common dry dock incident is a fire. It is also the most dangerous because of the damage potential, and the fact that it often occurs within the confines of a ship’s engine room. Fires can spread quickly because of flammable materials such as fuel, paints, and chemicals. Short circuits and welding operations can trigger fires, especially if they happen near these kinds of materials. Improperly maintained oil and cargo tanks, enclosed spaces where gas builds up, sounding pipes near hot work areas, and oil spills can be the starting point for fires as well.
Other types of dry dock accidents include:
- Falling loads: Loading and unloading work is often ongoing in this environment, and often involves cranes. Proximity to lifted loads, and not wearing helmets or other safety gear, can lead to injuries. At least two people should handle lifting, and nobody should walk under a load being lifted.
- Trips and falls: Oily floors, spare parts, and tools can cause workers to trip. Warning signs stating the potential for spilled liquids and scattered materials can at least give notice. Temporary railings around openings or plates, pacing oneself when using engine room ladders, and cleaning spills on floors can reduce the risk of falls as well.
- Starting machines accidentally: Maintenance workers can accidentally turn on the equipment, which can be fatal if anyone is inside. It’s therefore important to tag machines that are being maintained. Turning off main switches and removing fuses can add an extra layer of security.
- Burn injuries: Contact with hot oil and steam pipes in a ship is possible in drydock. Special care must be taken with heated parts and boiler vents, which can release hot steam.
- Shocks: Working in an engine room comes with the risk of shocks from electrical connections. An electric shock from an overloaded circuit or open wire can be debilitating or fatal.
- Floods: Drydocks are filled with water when a ship is ready for sea trials. Defective or damaged valves and other parts, and even those recently repaired can trigger flooding that can severely injure unsuspecting personnel.
Crane and equipment collapses and failures can trigger catastrophic accidents as well. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued standards regarding access to vessels and between ships, crane certification, use of equipment, and qualifications of operators in ship repair, building and breaking operations.
OSHA’s “Process: Dry Docking and Launching” describes the process and how to prepare for dry dock. The most dangerous time, the document specifies, is when a ship goes from being buoyant on the water to being supported by blocks. Weak blocks can be crushed, causing the ship to turn over. It also states that, by following the appropriate procedures, a catastrophic accident (such as a vessel overturning) is unlikely.